Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.




Expedition of the Arcturus

By JZ Murdock

“THREE MINUTES TO TOUCHDOWN,” the onboard computer stated in a perfectly calm, slightly feminine voice that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Suddenly the ship lost power and began to drop like the hollow piece of electronics, metal composites and ceramics that it was. It turned and spun through the atmosphere of a foreign planet where the highest life form discovered had been that of a mollusk. Collectively, eighty strapped-in passengers took a deep breath and struggled not to scream. Then someone in the back yelled:

“I got it!” Followed by a loud thunk sound and just like that, the ship steadied, righted itself and began to accelerate more forward than down, returning to a proper flight path.

“Thirty seconds to touchdown,” the “onboard” stated in perfect, holoblastic stereo. It had been calling out time every five minutes, then every minute and now it was down to every thirty seconds. After forty-eight point oh four seven minutes since entering the upper “atmo,” the descent was almost over.

A single tear cascaded down Julia’s cheek as the ship roughly glided toward touchdown. She heard something snap off somewhere behind them, but their progress was unaffected. A shock of fear rippled through her slight frame. She looked at Rohan in the pilot’s seat next to her.

Seventy years to arrive, ten seconds to touch down, she thought. Their landing, sped up by a couple of minutes now, was about to happen in a generally forested area with good sun exposure, a plentiful water supply and lots of arable farm land sparsely populated by what could be called “trees.”

It was this farm-type land where they were about to thump down onto, something they had carefully deliberated beforehand, and things were pretty much going according to plan. The landing site was a long stretch of flat ground wedged in between forested areas on either side. A very thin strip of the exposed land was mostly populated with tall grasses and wild flowers, lubrication for their landing. A perfect location and situation for homesteading.

Though it was all automated, Rohan for his part was busy with the landing stats. As were many of these young colonists, he was pilot rated. There was only so much to do on ship and the flight simulator had always been a popular draw. Julia glanced at one of the twelve screens and could see the nearly eighty others safe and secure, back in the main passenger compartment. Excitement and fear was obvious on every face, some exhibiting slightly more of one than another.

There wasn’t much left to do now.

Touchdown was a bumpy one. Landing planes running along the underside of essentially what was a large extraterrestrial glider were making their landing perfectly uneventful. Though this craft would never fly again, it would be cannibalized for its many components as tools. The superstructure would serve as their first dwelling.

One of their first tasks, however, would be to build a sustainable power supply. That wouldn’t be a problem because every one of the passengers on board was an expert in multiple disciplines. That along with the computers and the knowledgebases brought along with them would supply them with all the information they would need in medicine, engineering, agriculture, and much, much more. They had multiple copies of all the data the mother ship had brought along, just for this purpose: to start a colony on a new planet. Earth’s first true, off-planet colony. Not just workstations like on the moon, or Mars, but a full fledged, self-sustaining colony.

But things weren’t quite working out how they were supposed to. Or, how they had been told it would, anyway.

They jerked to a complete stop. Throughout the lander here and there a few things had broken free and a few passengers had been hit by debris, but no one was hurt beyond a scratch or a bruise or two. As the realization spread that they had come to a safe stop, that they had indeed survived, a collective sigh of relief became more than just slightly audible.

A general murmur began to grow. Some passengers kissed one another; some slapped others on the back. For some the mood was pretty light and upbeat. For some, the mood was rather tense. Soon would come the reality of what this landing meant, and in more ways than one.

At that point the ship’s “onboard” had switched from processing Active Flight to analyzing First Ground Contact, AF to AGC. Julia could see on the screens that the systems were analyzing external temperature, oxygen content, bacterial forms; things they had already checked from afar. But there is no check like the one actually taken on the ground. Actuality, as opposed to perceived reality. It was all just for verification, since they knew where and on what they had finally arrived, for it had all been studied for decades. But it had to be done.

Rohan sighed. He reached over and squeezed Julia’s arm, reading her thoughts. She looked up at him, saw his smile and smiled back somewhat sadly thinking of her father and mother far up above them. Far above and moving ever farther away from them.

“That’s it,” Rohan said, “mission accomplished. Phase one, anyhow. Sweetheart! It worked!” He unbuckled from his seat. As he rose to standing he leaned into her, kissing her lightly on the forehead, nuzzling her hair as she reveled in it, back at him. The onboard chose that moment to announce the analysis results:

“All necessary requirements rate nominal,” it stated in its slightly female voice. “It is now safe to exit the ship. Arcturus has been notified of a safe landing. Passenger metabolics are within normal limits considering the current situation. No dangerous indications of pain or damage registered. Outside temperature is seventeen point seventy seven Celsius. Winds are five to ten kilometers per hour. Terrestrial time, approximately 16:37. You have reached your final destination. Phase one of the Arcturus Expedition is completed. Congratulations.”

With that, the onboard went silent.

“Thank you,” Rohan said, quite unnecessarily. Then he laughed, knowing Julia would realize that he was only being polite to the computer because she would have been. She had always felt that he treated the onboard systems like slaves. It had been her persistent belief that how you interact with any other was part of who you were. And that could bleed into other areas. But that was part of what he loved about her.

“Okay then,” Julia said, “let’s move out, see what this planet’s got to offer. I could use a burger and a beer. Wonder if there’s a local joint nearby.” He looked at her with an ironic smile over her Earth vernacular, gleamed from old videos. “Hey, I’ve never been on a planet before. Who knows what we may find,” she said, smiling.

Rohan just chuckled.“Who has?” he replied. “Burger and beer sounds good.” He initiated the intercom and spoke the long anticipated words, “Hello, everyone. Well, we’ve made it. Your hard work has paid off. You may all exit the ship now. Remember, be very careful of the exterior of the ship and while passing through the fuselage, don’t touch it. The heat will melt your skin right off. Probably for a couple more hours. Remember to beware of grass fire from the ship’s hull. For those assigned, remember the fire extinguishers. Finally, congratulations. To us all. Our fondest thoughts go out to the others. Thank you. Well. I guess that’s all, for now. Welcome home, everyone.”

Technically, they still had one hour to leave the planet, if there were an emergency. Like, had they landed and found a planet full of predators, previously invisible to them—or something even worse. But after that hour the mother ship Arcturus would be too far out of range to rescue them. After that hour there would be little chance that they would ever again see their families and friends, still so far above them.

But it was a moot point as they had no way to leave the surface of the planet, anyway. This had been a one way trip. Gliders go down only, save perhaps for a warm updraft. There were no updrafts that could go all the way into space back to the mother ship. Both of them could read those thoughts in one another’s face and wanted only simply to avoid them. Rohan looked back at Julia as she continued to look away. He couldn’t believe how beautiful she was in that moment.

“For the greater good,” he said. She looked back and weakly smiled at him.

“For the greater good, honey. We made it.” She kissed him, the kiss lingering there for a moment, their lips sealed together. She stroked the back of his hair, ruffled it, smiled a warmer smile, then broke from him and headed toward the cockpit door, forcing out a giggle in her playfulness. In the main cabin beyond, the exterior door was already opened and people were pouring out of it. Out, into a new world.

After everyone had exited the ship, they backed away from the several patches of flames surrounding it. Some were setting up a break-fire to stop the flames from spreading beyond a few yards from the ship. Rohan held Julia in his arms. They would wait until the ship cooled down before removing cargo. They would sleep in the ship tonight. Their first night on an alien planet that was now to become their home.

Julia heard someone remark from the edge of the crowd. They were looking up and then others looked up in succession. So she looked up. She squeezed Rohan’s hand and nodded upward, her eyes glued to the sky. He noticed all around, people staring up, mouths hanging open. Rohan followed Julia’s gaze into the heavens and there above them, tiny dots were filling the sky. First one, then another, the dots spread into bigger dots until Rohan began to realize, they all began to realize, what they were seeing. Parachutes were opening. Hundreds of parachutes were popping open, filling the sky all the way to the horizon and beyond with a display that was overwhelming.

Some passengers began to weep with joy. A pregnant woman slowly kneeled down and cried. Others gave out exclamations of happiness and some even cheers of victory. It soon became clear that suspended beneath those parachutes were makeshift conglomerations of life-supporting environmental pods and all sort of assemblages allowing the entire compliment of the mother ship to escape to the planet’s atmosphere, there to plummet until the chute opened, allowing them to descend slowly and safely to the ground. A few in the sky wore spacesuits.

Rohan wrapped his arms around Julia and held her, emotion overwhelming them both. For it appeared that rest of the Arcturus had arrived, after all.

One Month Ago

“—and that, ladies and gentlemen of the interstellar transport ship Arcturus, is that. I’m afraid nothing has changed. As I had notified you all last week, our landing fuel has all been lost to seepage out into space, the warning sensors having failed us apparently due to a micrometeorite strike, of all things.

“There is no immediate threat to anyone, not for many decades,” Captain Kurt Thiel pressed down on the intercom switch. He was in the Command & Control with a few others. The C&C was located at the center of the ship as that afforded it the most protection. Due to the necessity of rotating the cylindrically shaped ship, in order to generate centrifugal gravity, it looked something like a roll of paper towels hurtling through space, with a giant inverse umbrella stuck on the back end for absorbing solar radiation and communication signals. There were very few external windows as they were a dangerous luxury and because it was quite disorienting to look at stars that seemed to be always rotating. All of the monitors in the C&C were CCTV in bold high definition holographic or 3D, fed from scores of externally oriented cameras.

“And I don’t have to remind any of you of the Incessant Obsolescence Postulate? No matter when an interstellar probe is launched, a subsequent probe will likely reach the destination sooner and with more modern equipment. So there is always hope. Advancements in technology are always happening. We’ve made a few ourselves on this ship.”

Only one year younger than the Captain, Head Navigator Andy Clemens turned his attention to Capt. Thiel who was finishing up, “If you have any questions, I am as always available to you. You all know that. That’s all I have for now. Thank you.”

Having addressed the crew, the Captain released the intercom switch and took a deep breath. Well, that was over. None of this was news to anyone, but considering they would be passing by the planet, their destination, after all these decades, he thought he needed to publically state it. To officially summarize that they were about to be lost in space, with no hope whatsoever of rescue.

How do you put a positive spin on something like that, the Captain wondered? Lie, I guess.

“Seventy years ago,” Andy said, interrupting, “our parents and grandparents left Earth for a seventy-five year trip, shortened in route by five years through new theories, discoveries, upgrades—” He took a bite from an apple he was holding, grown hydroponically on board, and continued speaking to the few people in the C&C who had no other choice at the time but to listen. “All brilliant new additions to the project. All unforeseen. And nearly all during the first two years of the trip. Then almost no more followed. What the 100 Year Starship Initiative hadn’t planned on was politics back on Earth.” A couple of people nodded knowingly, though somewhat sadly.

Thiel had been Captain of this vessel now for decades. Like many of the Command Officers who were now running the ship, he too had been born aboard this vessel, trained and then given command. Command of the ship, its passengers and their journey. Their seventy year excursion into deep space had been to establish a colony on the nearest viable planet to Earth that had been found that could openly support human life. Thiel looked around the control room. Five other command deck officers were there with him. Andy looked back at him, then quickly turned away. There wasn’t much to say, really. They all appeared rather gloomy about their prospects. Andy as usual had something to add and Thiel knew pretty much what that would be. They all did.

“Ridiculous!” Everyone to a person rolled their eyes, except for Thiel who maintained his lock on Andy’s face, trying in some way to be sympathetic. Or to control where this was going.

“Andy—” he tried to say.

“No. Really, we all know it’s true.”

“Everyone had agreed, Andy. Everyone believed it was reasonable, that it was worth doing. There’s really not much to say about it.” The others filtered out of the room wanting to turn their attention to anything else. Once the last person had exited the room, Andy and the Captain were alone together.

“I didn’t. I didn’t know. We didn’t. Christ, we weren’t even born yet. Now—” Thiel was about to comment, to try again when Andy turned to face someone entering behind the Captain. Thiel turned to see who it was. It was Rohan, son of Head Flight Engineer Norman Rao and his wife Anjana, a medical technician and biologist. Just about everyone on ship had more than one expertise. Happy to turn his attention to anything else, Thiel swiveled around in his comfortably padded chair to face the young man.

“Hi, Rohan. What can I do for you?” Rohan smiled.

“Cap’n, I want to propose something to you.”

“What is that?”

“Well, we’re going to miss the landing window. We’ve all accepted that, there’s nothing to be done about it, no way to slow down. The ship will continue on. But that doesn’t mean we can’t land—anybody.”

“How? We don’t have a lander,” Andy said, annoyed. “The idea was to save space, to land the entire ship. Right? Our only lander is a two seater. We would orbit the planet until refueling the ship, then land and cannibalize the ship for parts. How were we supposed to know that we’d lose the deceleration fuel in route?” He gave the Captain a surreptitious look. “So how do you propose we land? I mean, since we can’t bring the ship to a stop? Crash it into the planet? Wouldn’t work.” Thiel gave Andy a nasty look that shut his mouth with a nearly audible snap.

“No sir. I suggest—we build, a lander.”

“What?” Andy looked at Thiel. “That’s not possible. There’s no way we could build something big enough to land everyone.”

“I don’t think that’s what he’s getting at. How, Rohan? We don’t have the fuel or enough parts for a lander.” Then he thought and asked, “How would you do this?” Thiel was intrigued and Rohan could see it. The hook was set.

The Captain knew Rohan and his parents well. He had known his grandfather too, whom Rohan had been named for. In fact his grandfather had been the original Head Flight Engineer of the Arcturus. No one of that family were the type to waste time on something that was fantasy. And, Rohan had been dating Thiel’s daughter Julia for almost a year now. So he knew Rohan quite well. Obviously, the kid had something, possible in mind.

“Cap’n I have done the calculations. My dad has verified them. I’ve designed a glider that can land without fuel, built from scavenged parts around the ship. It will somewhat cripple some of the ship, but slightly.” Here his voice cracked, then bravely he went on, “But there won’t be—I mean, it won’t adversely affect anyone beyond what is already—beyond—I mean there will be a slight reduction in. That is—”

“Yeah, I get it,” Thiel responded. “You did this in a week?”

“Yes. Well, no sir. I mean, I pieced it together from designs I’ve been playing with for a couple of years now, just practice exercises, really. Like an escape pod, I suppose. Built out of random, mostly unneeded pieces of the ship.” Rohan smiled a wry kind of smile, proud of himself.

So is his father about now, I’ll bet, Thiel thought, also a little proud of his daughter’s boyfriend.

“What you’re saying is,” Andy spoke up, “no matter how much you cripple the ship, it really won’t matter because once we pass the planet, we’re headed into nothingness anyway, and eventual death; no other possible destination, just heading out there—forever.” A mixture of fear and anger could be discerned in Andy’s tense, quiet voice. Thiel gave him a rather odd look that Andy understood quite clearly to mean, “knock it off.”

“No—well yes, in a way,” Rohan said, nervously. “Look, this trip was planned to recycle everything after a flight that would last seventy-five years. The flight could not survive longer than two hundred at the max, between nutrient degradation and stress on the structure of the ship. Using the parts we’d need would knock off maybe ten, on the outside fifteen years of that time. But we could save maybe, eighty of us? Eighty, out of our current manifest of five hundred and thirty-seven on board, could survive! Isn’t that something?”

Rohan was beginning to sweat. This was obviously difficult for him.

“Yes, that is something. It certainly is,” the Captain remarked.

“No one wants this expedition to be a total failure. No one,” Rohan said, finishing up. Thiel felt for the boy. That thought made him almost laugh. Rohan was twenty-five, not quite a boy any longer. But from Thiel’s fifty years of age, he still seemed somewhat like a boy to him. Then again, how old had he been when he took over command of this ship?

“How can you build this in only a month? And once we arrive, there are only seven and a half hours in which to depart, enter the atmosphere, land, and even possibly return if anything goes wrong.”

“Sir, there will be no possibility of return. As I said, it will be a glider. I said that, didn’t I?” Silence entered the room.

“Okay, but you can do it in the month we have left?” Thiel was calculating in his mind.

“The main fuselage isn’t that hard to build with the number of people we have to work on it, and it doesn’t have to be that big. Not really. Or, that well done.” Rohan could feel his adrenalin wearing off. His hands were starting to shake a little but he didn’t want to show any nervousness.

“One month. Hmmm. Possible?” Thiel ruminated mostly to himself but he looked at Andy out of the corner of his eye. Slightly, Andy shook his head to indicate that he was unsure; but, maybe.

“Well, we think so. And if not, what’s it really matter?” Thiel knew that Rohan had a point. “Right? My father has already checked my calculations. Some of us have started work on putting together some onboard programs to run things. Just in case you give the go-ahead, of course. Much of the rest is really just connecting, melding and welding, gathering supplies and necessities. We don’t need as much size, security or integrity of form as would normally be demanded. This is after all, an emergency landing.

“We need only to survive radiation, cold and vacuum, then hit the “atmo,” maintain through several minutes of intense heat and then, land. We only have to survive it once so most rules don’t apply here. We have scores of data from many Earth re-entries. Leading edge temps will be between 2,500 to 3,000 degrees, for under forty-five minutes. If the ship starts to fall apart on the way down, or immediately after landing, it’s really a matter of little concern. As long as we survive the landing, or even, most of us. Think of it like a solid, sealed parachute, a one-way trip. Down. We’re basically talking about a sealed, emergency escape pod, with wings.” Rohan stopped and almost breathless, took a breath. And then he waited.

Thiel considered his words carefully. In the end no matter how long it might take, they were all one day simply going to cease to exist out here in the blackness of space. The voyage had been designed to go to one planet. This one. If they missed that landing? Well, that was it. And the next ship, would find the same situation.

“Andy, when is the Tormace to arrive?”

“The Tormace is due about twenty years from now, at last estimate. Newer engines, fuel and all, so their flight will only be about sixty-five years total time in transit.”

“All right Rohan. You have my permission. God knows, we should do something.” Rohan frowned at the unscientific reference to deity, but then smiled at the permission given. Andy grimaced but registered no complaint or comment. What did it matter at this point? They were all dead, anyway. Or maybe, not. Maybe not all. Andy smiled.

“Thanks Cap’n. Thank you. Sir.” Rohan hurried out, probably to share the news with Julia and the others who were on the inside track. Because there were over a hundred and fifty young people, some would have to be left behind. They could pack in more, but they could in the end only handle so much weight in people. They needed supplies in order to survive both the landing and the aftermath. So eighty was about it. They would carefully choose those with the most and best expertise that gave the group the greatest chance of survival. And how would all that be decided?

The Captain quickly realized that Julia would surely be one of them and he relaxed a little. There was a good chance his only child would survive after all. But then he realized that in that there was a conundrum. With his being Captain there could be an outcry. But it was obviously her boyfriend who thought this all up and she had been in on this since the beginning—along with her knowledge, that pretty much might guaranteed both of them to go.

Thiel stopped thinking about it, feeling relieved that Julia would most assuredly be on that flight. He had to be careful, though, he was already believing it was going to work. Julia was nearly Rohan’s age and an expert in her fields. So she actually did have the best skills to get her included on this ... what? Exodus? Escape? Considering their actual purpose in even being there, perhaps it was just an “arrival.” Images of old classic science fiction films flashed through his mind. But the potential horrors of that scenario led him to shut those thoughts down immediately.

Besides, they had yet to find any life form on the planet bigger than a mollusk. If that. He had never asked what that meant, just assuming the planet therefore to be safe. No Bengal tigers around, anyway. But as Julia’s mom, his wife Ilene had pointed out, a mollusk was an invertebrate and some invertebrates were fairly big. And if there was one type there might be others. The Asian Giant Hornet was the size of your thumb. The Giant Isopod was up to sixty centimeters inches in length. Japanese Spider Crabs got over five meters in leg span. He shuddered thinking about it. And there were big clams, on Earth anyway, at around two hundred thirty kilos. Suddenly, Thiel was hungry and that made him smile. Which felt good for a change. Humor.

Yet, he wouldn’t be down there to see her challenges or her triumphs on this new planet. He wouldn’t be there to protect her. By the time she was Thiel’s age now, he might very well have been long since dead. But Rohan would be there and Theil knew that he would do anything to protect her. He looked at Andy.

"The children are our future. If we couldn't find a fix, perhaps they can.”

"They can't figure out a thing,” Andy said. “If we couldn’t, how can they? No one can. Face it, we’re lost. All of us." Andy looked up at Thiel and saw the pain in his eyes. “But, I could be wrong.”

“I don’t know, I think they just might be able to build it in time. They have the best motivation in the world, or in the Galaxy for that matter.” Thiel looked up to the left, calculating in his mind. “It’s only a one way trip, all downhill. Down after all, is a pretty easy direction to go.” Then he looked hard at Andy. “If they can do it and if it does work, why didn’t we come up with it? That being said, why couldn’t we just—throw people out of the ship? In suits. Parachute down.”

“Because, there’s not enough—anything. Especially after they cannibalize things. We’ve only got about fifty spacesuits and spare parts for them.”

“Just look into it. See what we can do.” The Captain was feeling his own motivation. “It’s been done before. Very high altitude parachute falls. There aren’t enough spacesuits, so we’d have to jerry-rig something for most of them. Orbit the ship in case we ever find a way back up to it. Look, I know this sounds insane. Keep it close to your vest. I don’t want them knowing about this, just in case it all goes horribly wrong. I don’t want the guilt to fall on them. Because statistically speaking, if we do this, we will lose—some.”

“Maybe.” Andy smiled. “You realize though—they’ll probably all die on the way down in a glider, being ejected from a spaceship? Intent isn’t completion.” Thiel looked at Andy and considered his comment. He was probably right. Still—

“Shut up, Andy,” he said.

Thirty-Five Years Ago

“Capt. Thompson?” Communications Officer Markus looked up from his infosheet by the communication console in the C&C. He was holding a rectangle of film the size of a piece of writing paper, with electronic capabilities. “The Tormace has left the Earth successfully. They’re on their way, sir. They’ll arrive after us, twenty-five years behind. Maybe.”

“Are they mad?” The Captain hesitated, then noting Markus’ look of confusion, said, “Thank you, Markus.” The Captain was drinking some champagne from grapes grown and fermented on the ship over ten years ago. They’d been now thirty-five years on board and this was the Captain’s seventy-fifth birthday. Soon, he would turn his Captaincy over to a successor, the young Lt. Kurt Thiel, who was sitting at the navigation console working through some solutions.

That kid is at it all the time. But by the time I step down, he thought, it will be Captain Thiel. He smiled. Humor. Gotta get it where you can find it anymore, he thought rather morosely.

At seventeen, Lt. Thiel had excelled beyond anyone on board as the most likely candidate to one day succeed the Captain, surpassing even the current second in command. But that wouldn’t be for another three years. Rules were that you had to be at least twenty to take over as Captain. On Earth this wouldn’t have been acceptable, but on this ship there was nothing to do but learn relevant lessons through most of your childhood, through all your life. Things like how to work on and run a ship and, in Thiel’s case, how to be the Captain of that ship.

Besides, Captaincy mostly involved dealing with passenger issues, not even ship issues. Maintenance and typical ship maneuvering; take offs, which they’ll never do again; landings, which they’ll do maybe once; and flight and navigation. Those were their primary concerns. Though they did have Chief and Secondary Navigators, the computers did most of the piloting. They almost didn’t even need to be on the ship for it to run. If they all died today, it would just keep on going for many, many more decades.

But someone would have to build a new world, once they arrived. He chuckled quietly.

“What do you suppose they were thinking?” Capt. Thompson asked aloud. Though there were three of them in the C&C, there were usually only two. This trip was so long that the onboard systems performed most of the tedious monitoring work. So it was unnecessary for anyone to be even on duty in the C&C. The rules were though, that there were always to be two on duty. Two to be “on call,” just in case something happened beyond the scope of the computers.

“Insanity.” The Captain whispered aloud to himself, thinking about the launch of the second ship. It had been talked about but he never thought they’d go through with it. And why had they kept it from him? Unlike aboard ship, Earth was all about Machiavellian machinations anymore. Politics gone mad. He was actually glad that he wasn’t there to have to put up with it any longer. Life now was ... simple.

“Sir.” Markus had been busy for a couple of hours decrypting and compiling communiques from their new sister ship, the Tormace. “They related that two days after they left, that—” he thought for a moment then hesitantly said, “Sir, it seems that two things happened in rapid succession. After their departure. I—I was also decrypting some military channels we were catching snippets of and that, together with the information from the Tormace—we haven’t had any communications in a while, then suddenly I caught a brief spurt, and a massive amount of information came over. The first was from Ground Control saying they were very close to solving the ... EndGame? And that they should have it solved within the next few months. Someone said to tell the Captain of the Acrturus that they told you so. But then—there’s just so much—”

“Damn, spit it out, what else?” Thompson said.

Lt. Thiel looked up, also curious.

Markus continued. “Yes well, it seems that the dictator of some small nuclear country fired a nuke at a nearby country and succeeded in wiping out their capital city. It was apparently something that was going on for months until finally, it just escalated. It’s unclear who hit whom, though. The entire world was in talks about coming down on that aggressor country. But then, a couple of days later, and I just got this all pieced together, a comet, discovered only two months ago, impacted with the Earth. It wasn’t a near miss as was hoped. There’s been no more communications from them since. The Captain of the Tormace says he fears the worst. That’s—about it.”

The Captain of the Arcturus was silent for a full minute before responding. Lt. Thiel just sat there in shock, staring at the Captain. Though he had never been to Earth, he knew that now he would never get the chance.

“How big?” asked the Captain. “The comet, how big?”

“They believe it was just over 900 kilometers in diameter, sir. No one even knew about it until a university discovered it and notified the entire world.”

“Oh, my God.” A cold chill swamped the Captain’s skin, adrenalin pumping through his system. Fight or flight response kicked in, but there was no immediate need to do either. He locked eyes for a moment with Thiel.

“So, it finally happened. Speed, density?”

“Fast and uncharacteristically dense enough. If you remember, Charles Cockell—”

“Sure. Cockell, one time Professor of Astrobiology in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, also Chair of the Earth and Space Foundation. And a lot more. Responsible for much of our way of thinking on, well, all of this.” He waved his hand around, meaning the space ship and their voyage. Markus understood, completely.

“Yes. If I remember correctly, according to him—”

“You usually do.” The Captain said, feeling the champaign numbing him a bit. And thank God for that, he thought.

"Cockell said that perhaps just under four billion years ago, the Earth could have been hit by asteroids up to 400 kilometers across, forty times bigger than the one that is supposed to have been responsible for the K/T extinctions. Such an asteroid would boil away the oceans and transform the atmosphere into one of steam and molten rock. The resulting temperatures would be well beyond the upper limit for life and the surface of the Earth would have been baked free of living microbes. It was the basis for the AWaPS program, the Comet Warning and Protection System. The one that was delayed to pay for ... our expedition. But it wasn’t designed for anything this ... massive.”

“Almost 900 kilometers? Asteroids are more dense than comets but comets aren’t that big. That’s is like a small plantoid. But still.”

“There was very little to be done about it. The single attempt to destabilize the comet, either it or its trajectory, failed.”

“Then, it’s over. Maybe, knowing the end was coming they went crazy in the end. Maybe they were right in not telling anyone? It only takes one nut with the right button to push, I suppose. Sooner or later if not already, our two tiny ships’ worth of humanity will be all that’s left. Two ships. My God.”

His hands shook, his vision blurred. He took a deep breath. He was still the Captain, he reminded himself. So, he tensed his muscles, hard, relaxed them, and took a couple of deep breaths. Then he sipped some more of his champagne, a touch of needed liquid courage.

Some birthday, he thought.

Seventy Years Ago

A thirty-five year old Captain Thompson faced the President of the United States in the Oval Office of the White House. The ceremony had just completed, the TV cameras were now turned off. Several other ship’s officers were standing around, having all just met with the President. Last week the President had addressed the entire crew in a large NASA hanger. But this was the final event. The President turned to the crew and heaved a breath.

“What you two ladies, four gentlemen, are about to embark on, this amazing journey, I want you to know how much you have all our blessings and best wishes. God knows, you may end up being our only surviving brothers and sisters, with how things have been going in the world. But we will continue to work toward world peace in your absence. We are sadly, only human. But we have achieved great things. You all are facing the greatest direct dangers of any of us, in taking on this trip. But you may be the safest of us, too. God speed to you. God speed to you all.”

With that the President shook hands with all six of them one last time, he hugged them and then, giving them each a heartfelt grip of their shoulder with his left hand, a photo was taken. They would each be supplied with a copy prior to leaving for the ship, silver framed and signed by the most authoritative man on the planet. The most powerful human alive. Then they were all ushered out of the room. But the President stopped the Captain as the others exited through the door.

“Captain,” the President said, “you are a brave man. You have my deepest respect. You and the two others. Head Flight Engineer Rao and Chief Navigator— Davis, I believe?” The Captain nodded in the affirmative. Then, as if he wasn’t quite in the same room anymore, the President went on, “We had the opportunity to do this and I believed we needed to do it—to branch out to assure survival. If not now, when? I can feel it in my bones.

“I don’t know if we’re intelligent or mature enough to stop it here, or take it to its obvious conclusion. Then there is our most direct threat, getting closer every day. That is our secret. One day it will all come out surely, but not yet. Not just now. I felt, well we had to try, to try something. You are that something, Captain. You and your shipmates. If there is any way that I could send more of you, I would. I will. God bless you, Sir. God love you all.”

The Captain could see his eyes turning moist. What the President just said to him, made him proud to be Captain of this endeavor, but also fearful of what he was leaving behind, not to mention heading into. So, they shook hands one last time knowing that no matter what, they would never see one another again, certainly not in person. The Captain tore himself away before he got any more emotional than he already was.

The next morning found the entire crew of three hundred and fifty individuals on board a ship that could sustain well over five hundred as a hedge to account for replacement and growth. All but six of them had been on board for two days already, making preparations. The final deliveries and checks were done, they were now ready to leave space dock. About one hundred other technicians began to exit the ship until “all those going ashore” went “ashore.”

At nine a.m. Eastern Standard Time, the ship began its rollup to top speed, an effort that would take fully a couple of years to achieve. It was a slow but effective acceleration with a top speed that would be faster than any human had ever traveled before in history. Attached tanks of fuel would eventually be expended and discarded, not unlike how the old space shuttle used expendable tanks to exit the gravitational pull of the Earth. But these weren’t old fashioned solid fuel rockets. Not by a long shot.

Several in the C&C were speaking to Ground Control in hushed tones and would continue to do so for the next several hours. Capt. Thompson, looking rather young and handsome sitting in the Captain’s chair, hesitated and then gave “The Command.”

“Let’s go see what’s out there,” he said, smiling and thinking about the old science fiction films that he had loved so much as a youth, all of them uploaded into onboard storage. He had just stated for posterity his own catch phrase that would be shared around the world and go down in history, partly because the entire world was watching him on CCTV. For the first time, such words were uttered appropriately and for real.

Head Flight Engineer Rohan Rao manipulated some screens and after many minutes, the ship began to move forward, gliding ahead into history and the outer limits of deep space, moving away from the planet that had built it. Soon, they would be leaving the familiarity of their home solar system for an unsure future of uncommon design.

One Year Before the Departure of the Spaceship Arcturus

Three astronauts, Captain Thompson, Chief Navigator Sandra Davis and Head Engineer Rao, sat on comfortable leather sofas facing three Government Administrators in the warm, expensively decorated office. They were meeting in the office of the head of the National Security Agency, for the purposes of both convenience and security.

The President of the United States had just left after spending a few minutes shaking hands and explaining that what they were about to be told was of the utmost importance to the country and to the world, and it had the full support and knowledge of the Office of the President of the United States. It was a national security issue and had the highest Top Secret, “Sensitive Compartmented Information” rating possible.

The three Officers sat there after the President had left and listened to the two men and one woman opposite them as they explained the situation. They then waited tensely for the astronauts either to agree, or to back out of the program that they had been selected from out of over 1,000 applicants.

They were stunned, obviously. Actually, everyone in the room was experiencing some form of numbness. They all sat on their respective couches staring straight ahead at one another. Facing the Officers on the opposing couch, across the room from them were the head of the NSA, the head of NASA’s newly reconfigured space agency, and the President’s Chief of Staff. Apparently, someone thought that it was best to have a woman deliver the news.

Chief of Staff Walker was wrapping things up.

“So you can understand that this is not to be divulged to anyone under any circumstances, especially the ship’s crew. Ever. We believe the pressure would be too much over that amount of time, for anyone to deal with. Obviously someone needs to know, and as you know, morale on such a voyage is of utmost importance. Confidence is extremely high here that a solution to the EndGame, as we refer to it, a resolution will be found. But we need to start this expedition, now. Then there is the issue of the comet. It is on direct course one day to become an impact event unlike anything the Earth has previously experienced. Except perhaps for the creation of the moon. Anyway, that is many years in the future and a future Administration will decide if and when it is best to make it public. Hopefully, after we have solved what to do about it.“

The head of NASA leaned slightly forward and spoke next. “Here’s the thing, the comet issue aside for the moment, we have no way, once you achieve nominal speed, in order to arrive in the time required, for you to have any fuel left when you arrive, to slow you down. You simply cannot carry enough fuel with you. It’s just not, possible.”

Capt. Thompson sat up straight. He looked the Chief of Staff in the eyes. “Just so we can be crystal clear here, you are sending us, for all intents and purposes, on a suicide mission?” The Chief of Staff cleared her throat. The two on either side of her shifted uneasily.

“No. No, we don’t see it that way. Yes, we are embarking on this mission short of a solution but, in the time span of seventy-five years there is no doubt in any of our minds, and those of the scientists involved, that a solution will be found.”

“First of all,” said the Captain, “we are embarking, you’re not going anywhere, Ma’am, Sir, Chief? Chief Walker.” The Chief of Staff looked down at her expensive shoes, forced a smile and met the Captain’s eyes. She nodded her acceptance of his statement. “Second, I deal in fact. I am a Captain, not a scientist. Since we have no solution to the—EndGame,” here the Captain fought an urge to chuckle, it was ridiculous, but not in the way they would take it, so he quickly continued, “this is therefore, a suicide mission—with the possibility of landing, to be determined later.”

“You,” the head of NSA said, “very possibly will have died of natural causes before any of this is even an issue.”

“So you have put the fate of our descendants on our heads.” The frustration was obvious on the faces of the Administrators. The Captain saw this, quite clearly.

“Look, I can see where you are uncomfortable having to deliver this information. I understand. If I were handed this to tell a crew such as us, well, it’s gotta be tough. But we have all the facts now. We know the ins and outs. You want our answer, right? Well? I think we all agree,” he looked at his Officers and soon to be interstellar travelers. Both of them, in their lack of speaking up, spoke volumes as they continued to stare into his eyes, not wavering in the slightest. These were not weak individuals and he was proud of them.

“We do not like not being able to tell anyone. You want us to keep secrets from the entire world, and to our crew. I don’t have to tell you that we really don’t like that last part at all. But, okay. We understand. We don’t agree but—we’ll do it.”

A marked relief passed across the faces of the Administrators. Then a look of concern. Their mission completed, the agreement now made, they could finally consider the humanity, or the lack of humanity, in the situation that they had just put into process. Now, they just wanted to separate themselves from the space travelers.

“There can never be more than six who know of this meeting,” the head of the NSA said. “At some point, you will have to tell your successors, obviously, and at that point, you will both know it so for a while, six on the ship will know about this. Then one day, someday, you will die, hopefully of natural causes and in sound mind, and at peace.” The NASA head gave him a dirty look.

“Then only one of the Officers of each of your stations will know of all this and there will again be only three on the ship who will know of it. Finally the landing day will arrive. We will by then or long before that day have found the solution and your descendants and shipmates will all land safely. Remember, there will always be the Incessant Obsolescence Postulate. Before you arrive, your solution may be there waiting for you. Or meet you along the way.”

The Captain gave him a questionable look of disdain and then asked his final question. “Don’t you want us to sign something?”

“No, Captain. There has never been anything quite this Top Secret,” said the head of the NSA, “there is nothing to sign. This, never happened. You are all officers and—uh,” glancing quickly at Sandra Davis, “—and that is good enough for the President.”

“We’re done then,” the Captain said, also happy at the prospect of leaving that office as soon as possible.

“Thank you,” said Chief of Staff Walker, standing and putting out her hand. The others stood and there was nervous hand shaking all around until finally the three Astronauts walked out through the door held open by the head of the NSA and into, history. He closed the door behind them, turned and looked at the other two and said:

“Drinks?” Without waiting for the others to agree, he proceeded to pour them all a stiff one.

In solemnity outside the office in an unusually quiet corridor, the three Galactic Travelers faced one another. Each waited for the other to speak first. Finally, the Captain spoke up. Perhaps, as it should be.

“So. Last chance. We’re all agreed?” Silence. “Agreed then,” and with that he walked off down the corridor saying, “Let’s get on board, then. We have a mission to launch. For the greater good, my friends. For the greater good.” infinity

JZ Murdock has a degree in psychology and creative writing/screenwriting from Western Washington University. He was a Senior Technical Writer through the last half of the 1990s, working in the IT field for a couple of decades. He has been married 3.5 times and is currently single, devoting his time to writing.



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