Sci-Fi Stories - a blog by Mihai Pruna

This blog will contain stories taking place in two universes. In one 'reality', Earth has been hit by a large asteroid that wiped out most of the population. Stories (with the exception of the intro) will follow those spared by the impact as they struggle to survive on the now hostile planet. The other story line involves an invasion by a large alien fleet intent on settling on Earth and ruling over mankind. All stories belong to Mihai Pruna, no republishing without permission.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Strategy: Invasion Story 3

Interview with General H. Townsend, Unified Defense Headquarters

When the alien fleet was first spotted, our weaponry had evolved in the wrong direction for over a decade. Most new developments concerned themselves with the COIN (counter-insurgency) field.
We had smart, semi-autonomous UAVs that could loiter for hours hunting a group of terrorists, then delivering a small missile or bomb on top of them with deadly precision. A big charge was not needed, because Tangos or insurgents seldom used any armor at all.
We had intelligence gathering drones that relied on a well established, invulnerable- at the time -network of satellites and command centers.
Our soldiers had sophisticated combat suits that relied on the same network to convey battlefield information and orders to their wearer. Remote control operated vehicles patrolled unfriendly cities, looking for hidden bombs and booby traps.
Our newest fighter, the F22, was built mainly for stealth. The cold war ended, the competition for speed and maneuverability had been won by the Russians, with their S-37s, but nobody cared. Even in the very unlikely event of a confrontation, we knew they couldn't match us in numbers. The other superpowers, China and India, depended on us economically as much as we depended on them...and they knew it. They didn't care if they lagged behind in technology. Europe was content to ignore our capabilities altogether and go off in their own direction, with their multirole, canard fighters. Cute, but not outstanding in any way.
The missile defense system, for fear of North Korea and Syria and Iran, had evolved nicely, but could only handle attacks with limited scope.And it was calibrated for known warheads and missiles. Of course we couldn't know in advance what an alien fleet could throw at us from orbit or land bases.
So when the massive armada was first spotted - beyond Jupiter, due to the light coming off their nozzles as they were decelerating -we were ready to face conflict anywhere on Earth but wholly unprepared to face invaders from space.
We could take out satellites with kinetik interceptors, but that was about it.
Our astronomers gave us three years until the fleet arrived in Earth orbit, based on their speed and deceleration rate.
We had to think fast. We knew we couldn't build spaceships that would match theirs in space combat. Heck, we didn't know much about them at all. We sent probes, but they would take months before they reached the enemy.
Yes, we figured out they were the enemy pretty soon. One doesn't send over a hundred huge ships for exploration or any peaceful purpose. No, we figured out right away this was an invasion.
An invasion we could only fight from our home turf. Our home turf was Earth itself and Earth's vicinity in space. We had to quickly build up forces that could meet the space armada in orbit, and we had to prepare to face them on the ground and in the air.
In space, we would rely heavily on nuclear missiles launched from the ground or from orbital interceptors. We figured out the alien fleet would establish orbit around Earth rather than simply fly past and drop bombs.All their ships were decelerating at a slowly increasing rate, and computer projections showed they were setting up to match Earth's velocity around the sun and the plane of the elliptic. That was established early on, even before the message came.
At that point there were some who still hoped maybe the fleet was a peaceful if sizable exploration and technology exchange or commercial venture.
But everyone agreed that it was best if we met them in space in terms as even as possible. That meant we had to make a sizable military presence in orbit.
To maximize the amount of material and people we put up to meet the strangers in LEO, we established early on that the bulk of our forces would be launched in space when the fleet braked for orbit, barring a sizable preliminary attack.
That minimized the loiter time for our space forces and thus the consumables sent up to support them, which meant more weapons could be launched. Throughout the 3 years that elapsed between its detection and arrival, the fleet maintained cohesion. No scouting parties, probing attacks, or drones arrived. Their transmission later on would explain why.
Heavy debate between the major superpowers preceded the formation of a collaborative strategy. The United States, Europe, Russia, China and India and most other countries finally worked out an approach which allowed each country to contribute according to its capabilities. Remember, that was still during the early days, when we all thought were fighting for a common goal. The message would change things a little bit, but fortunately or unfortunately it came after the chips were already on the table and it was too late for any of the major players to change their stance and strategy.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

'Adeve' -asteroid story 4. This is the continuation of 'Escape', asteroid story number 3.

"What should we call you...Gaia?"
Core snickered inwardly at Katie's question directed towards the... entity, for lack of a better word. Thinking of Gaia, he'd picture a ball of green, white and blue, unspoiled and teeming with life. The landscape rolling five hundred miles below looked like a cross between Mars and the Death Star.
"No, Gaia is obviously a female entity, and I lack gender. I think...Adeve should be my name. For after you leave, I will truly be the last of the human species left on Earth. Adeve sounds genderless, too."
The spacious cockpit of the shuttle they'd been living in for the past two weeks was oriented towards a true orbital shipyard. Among dozens of construction ships, theirs was taking shape. Core pushed himself towards the glazed nose of the shuttle for a better look.
"I still can't believe this", he thought. Adeve had decided to send them on a quest to search for other humans throughout the galaxy. If any were found, Core and Katie were to let them know of his existence, and send a message towards Earth.
A veritable Star Trek, that's what this adventure was shaping to be. Their ship would travel at near light speed, and their first target, Alpha Centauri, was only a week away in ship time. They would signal as soon as something was found, or continue on. Adeve would patiently wait for their answer. Of course, there was the slightly nagging matter of all the other probes that he'd sent vanishing without ever telling him anything. Adeve had put up a very reassuring tone when he'd said that their ship was way more advanced than his probes, and capable of taking on anything out there...and all it needed was a couple of true humans to steer it the right way. And as a bargaining chip, heshe said there were life extension pods aboard the starship that would rejuvenate him and Katie whenever they went in, allowing them to essentially live forever.
Core, who'd read a lot of Sci-Fi as a teen, could take all this in stride, but he often wandered if Katie was perceiving this as simply a bad dream she couldn't wake up from. Her demeanor gave away little insight of what was going on in her mind, unless she wanted it revealed. She'd always been like that, and Cornelius had found out too late how unhappy she'd been with their relationship. He now missed those first few days in this future, when she was bewildered and scared and she was reaching out to him. But as time went by and the strangeness of their situation lifted, she had become more aloof. She didn't shut him out completely, but she acted towards him like with an acquaintance rather than a friend...or a husband. And they'd never slept together, curses!
He was startled as she bumped into him, floating toward the window. He reached to steady her, but she grabbed a rail and quickly pulled herself away before he could touch her. He could tell that she was embarrassed and afraid of giving him false messages. Double curses!
She said, to no one in particular: “I hope we see real Alien life forms, that is, life not originating from Earth.” She’d majored in biology for a few semesters before switching to marketing.
Core thought he should be more worried about what lay ahead. He could be getting them into something sticky, and it wasn’t his life he was worried about. After rescuing Katie from sure death, he could be putting her in peril by agreeing to this foolhardy trip from scientific curiosity and thirst for of adventure. But, was there really an alternative? Though Adeve never stated that they had to leave, heshe’d never asked them if they wanted to stay on Earth or in the Solar System either.
Since his…or whatever, its influence didn’t seem to extend to other star systems, they would at least be in charge of themselves during the trip, and maybe find a nice planet somewhere…settle down…have kids. Or maybe not have kids, the way his interactions with Katie were progressing.
“I’m going to bring us in for a closer look” Core announced suddenly. He could have brought a zoomed up view of the starship on one of the screens, but he’d use just about any excuse to fly the shuttle manually. Talk about wildest dreams came true.
“Please be careful” said Adeve.
“She … it…heshe… can be so melodramatic”, Core thought as he gingerly pushed the jetfighter-like throttle forward. “The planet could take over the shuttle at any time, so this is probably hisher highness way of making us feel more comfortable by playing mere human with us.”
The genderless contralto voice offered another cookie.
“I think you should take this shuttle with you. There is one more aboard your starship, much more versatile, whereas this one is designed for Earth’s atmosphere and gravity field. But since you, Core, seem to enjoy flying it around and you, Katie, might have developed some affection for it during your time spent aboard, I think it’s fitting to take it along as a memento of your time spent here, with me.”
“Wow”, pondered Core as Katie shot him an amused look. ”Adeve is trying really hard to show heshe understands human psyche." I wonder if heshe truly wants to be like us…fleshy and sociable.”
Then, another idea shot through him along with a slim feeling of hope. Maybe Katie was reserved towards him because she felt under surveillance by Adeve at all times. Maybe once heshe cannot monitor them, when they are speeding away from himher, maybe then Katie will open up to Core.
The starship was almost two miles long, with a diameter of about five hundred feet. Core had spent some interesting hours going over schematics with Adeve, and by now he felt he understood the principles behind the machinery, even though the details escaped him. If anything broke during the trip, he hoped the maintenance robots could fix it.
In essence, the starship used matter/anti-matter reactions to propel itself forward with huge explosions behind its stern. It could generate antimatter from matter by using its enormous total conversion reactor, which occupied three quarters of the length of the ship. The reactor could also generate matter in any configurations, and thus feed the passengers and provide spare parts for the ship as well. Anything could be used as fuel, and the starship had powerful electromagnetic scoops that could pick up anything from air to asteroids and send it into the reactor’s dual inlets. With the inlets on both side of the central section, the ship resembled a gigantic jet airplane, with stubby wings and no tail. The wings were used to radiate any excess heat into space.
But this was not all. Relativity dictated that even this ultra powerful engine could not push the ship to speeds that would allow them to cover the colonized strip of galaxy in less than a thousand lifetimes. Which, if Adeve’s rejuvenation contraptions worked, they might actually live, although it made for some boring spans of time spent inside their luxurious tin-can.
Fortunately, an artifice allowed the ship to trick physics. As they moved faster and faster, the laws of relativity dictated that the mass of the ship and its inertia increased, thus reducing acceleration. It could never achieve even a quarter of the speed of light. Kind of like the rabbit that always eats through half of the remaining cabbage patch, and never finishes it.
This starship though, it contained a field generator that made the rest of the universe ‘see’ a progressively lighter version of the ship. Thus, as speed increased, mass remained almost constant and apparent acceleration decreased much more slowly than it would have sans the field. Pretty nifty tricks. Adeve had said that this was the first time a ship like this was being built, at least to hisher knowledge.
And, three weeks later, Core and Katie stepped foot on the ceramic floor of its hangar deck for the first time. As the shuttle touched down, artificial gravity came online, building up slowly to one Gee as they got accustomed again to walking.
Though they’d both contributed to the design of the living areas, walking around caused may Oohs and Aahs. There was the greenhouse, where seeds caught in the Hummers wheels had bloomed into beautiful flowers as random genetic variations had been introduced to the few species represented. A small stream led to a pond in the center, and a bike and running track twisted around to provide almost a mile of scenic jogging.
The inner surface of the dome could project three-dimensional vistas, and today a rustic landscape surrounded their garden.
Their quarters, separate, unfortunately, each had five large rooms, which right now were furnished with standard 21st century furniture and amenities. Later on they could configure the living spaces at will, using the extensive library and their imagination.
There was a common area as well, filled with couches and gadgets, and a gym.
Core had insisted on adding a Trekkie ‘bridge’ where every function of the ship could be accessed from two leather couches, via configurable controls or simply by voice commands.
Katie in turn had wanted a real observation deck, not just holo-screens, and thus a ¾ sphere jutted in front of the ship, circular windows dotting its surface.
“We need a name.” Core smiled at Katie. “Since you didn’t get to name our gracious host, I think you should name the ship.”
She smiled back, a rare sight:”Let’s call her Hope.”
“Hope it is.”
Two days later, they were ready to go. As the mass negating field activated, they would lose contact with Adeve, so this was a goodbye of sorts. They would send a message back from Alpha Centauri, which Adeve would receive about ten years from today.
“Be careful. You have showed me what it means to be human, and I thank you for that.” Cornelius nearly sputtered the champagne he was drinking. He exchanged looks with Katie, and instantly knew that she too felt this was overly sappy, like a bad movie.
“Goodbye Adeve. We’ll send you love letters.” Katie chuckled. Cornelius pushed the big red button. All outside views suddenly went blank due to the mass negating field, and a computer rendering of their path appeared on the main screen. They were off, but couldn’t feel any signs of movement. Hope was already outside of the Moon’s orbit, flying faster and faster into the great unknown.

Behind them, Adeve could finally start working. Heshe would not be alone for long.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Escape - Asteroid Story 3

The police cruiser that seemed to tail him for three blocks made Cornelius ‘Core’ Husky sweat in cold shivers, but he kept going straight. It must have been the dark, reflecting windows on his tan colored Hummer – tacky combination, indeed- that got them suspicious, but he never broke the speed limit and obeyed all the stops so they peeled off. Had they stopped him, he would have had a lot of explaining to do. And if that failed, he’d be dead in hours or days.He breathed a sigh of relief, but kept checking his rearview mirror constantly. Once he nearly rear-ended someone’s Miata when the fellow decided to stop when the light turned yellow. He chastised himself and from then on kept his gaze on the road ahead.

This was the first time he’d driven the Hummer since the day he bought it about six months ago. He’d brought it home late at night and it had stayed in his garage ever since. He hoped nobody had seen it, especially that old obnoxious chatterbox Miss Darcy. She’d mentioned a few times to him that she ran into Katie at the supermarket regularly, making sure to emphasize the ‘handsome young man’ that seemed to always accompany her.

Presently, Katie was home expecting a fire department inspector, not her ex husband. He parked behind Katie’s apartment, in a spot facing her porch. That area was for residents only, but Core wasn’t planning on staying long. After a quick check in the mirror, adjusting his visor to hide his features and making sure the chest patch taped on his coveralls was straight, he picked up the toolbox from the passenger front seat and quickly exited the car, leaving the doors unlocked. Core went around the building, forcing himself to walk in a poised, but calm manner. That was hard to do when his insides were quacking and his hands felt numb cold. Remember, you have nothing to lose, and everything to gain…he kept saying. Unless he was really wrong. Unless the dissolution of his group, some left in the dark, like him, some other scientists vanishing with their entire families without a single word of explanation, unless that didn’t mean the world was about to end tonight.

After the second ring, a ‘handsome young man’ opened the door. He looked at him quizzically. Core muttered a greeting, then fire inspection, all the while keeping his head down. But instead of letting him in, the man continued to stand in the doorway, blocking the entrance. It seemed air itself froze for an instant. Core, feeling completely paralyzed, could hear the sounds of the TV coming from the house. Then Katie showed up in the hallway and it was as if his heart restarted with a jolt.

He swiftly brought his toolbox up, pointing it at the man’s chest, and squeezed one of the two buttons on the handle. A dart flew out of the narrow end of the box. Hit, Katie’s boyfriend reeled back in surprise. Core pushed past him, remembering to shut the door behind him.He fired another dart at Katie just as her eyes were opening in recognition. She backed against the wall of the narrow corridor and started to slide down. Core dropped the toolbox and caught her. He took Katie, now unconscious, in his arms and rushed through the apartment. At the patio door, Core gently lowered her on the floor while fumbling with the lock.He kicked the gate of the enclosed porch, opened the Hummer’s door using just one hand and quickly pushed Katie inside, fastening her seatbelt tight to keep her torso in the reclined car seat. Her head was rolled to the side on the headrest, but that didn’t matter since nobody could see inside. He got in the car and stole a look around while starting the engine. It was dark now, and the area appeared deserted. He stole a glance at the dashboard clock.

It was 9:04 PM Pacific. The ‘breaking and entry’ phase of his plan lasted less than five minutes. He had about four hours left. The government had predicted that the asteroid would be at the closest point to Earth at 1:16PM Pacific. Core inferred that to be the time of the actual impact or atmospheric entry. It would take him about an hour to get to the lab, most of it spent on dirt roads. There was a paved access road, through the now deserted checkpoint, but he’d have to drive around the restricted area to get there and that would waste more time. He thought he was cutting it close enough as it was.

As he was pulling out of the parking lot, Core saw flashing lights heading his way. A police car passed the Hummer on the street and went into the parking lot Core had just left. Somebody must’ve seen something. Core stepped on it. Fortunately, the traffic was lighter than usual. The radio was reporting congestion on the interstate, and linking that to, rather derisively to the passage of the asteroid.If only they knew... The Hummer was extremely stable, taking curves at high speed extremely well. Its wide track had something to do with that, but Core supposed it had more to do with how loaded it was. He'll soon find out just how well it would handle off-road.Suddenly, his rearview mirrors exploded with flashing lights, and the air was pierced by the sound of a siren. Sneaky bastards! They were right behind him, a few car lengths away.

He floored it. Only a few miles left until he reached the dirt road. Although acceleration felt rather sluggish, the powerful, military grade engine he'd paid ten extra grand for did its job. He was going over a hundred miles per hour, not even slowing down at curves. The cop car receded in the distance. A beeping noise from the dashboard was now letting him know that the exit was approaching. He glanced at the integrated GPS and at the last moment braked and sharply turned to the right.

The opening in the fence was right in front of him and he went at it full bore, switching his lights off. He knew the dirt road was straight for a few hundred feet, and hoped to lose the cops that way. When he was sure nothing was behind, he stopped and slid a monocular NVG over his right eye, securing it to the brim of his cap. Driving one-eyed would be tough, but not as bad as being completely blind for seconds if caught in the cop’s beams. The landscape came into view in tones of green and white and Core started to negotiate the bumpy track at 40 miles per hour.

Soon the low buildings that made up the research complex appeared in the horizon. As it has for the past months, the place was completely deserted, protected only by a padlocked door, even though it housed billions of dollars worth of equipment. The only thing that had been removed was the self contained nuclear reactor, a submarine unit donated by the Navy. Core reached the loading door of the lab, through which all the bulky equipment had come in, and stopped the car. He allowed himself a few moments to breathe a sigh of relief. Almost there. Then he heard the faint noise of rotor blades. Faint, but increasing in intensity. Quickly, he jumped out of the car and went to the side of the sliding door.

All the months of preparing, of dreaming every possible scenario, every possible shortcut he could take on this fateful night, it was paying off right now. He fished a key out of his pocket and turned it in a small panel. Instantly, the doors started to slide open. Jumping back in the car, he drove in while the doors were still moving. As soon as they reached the end of their track, they reversed their motion and in less than a minute they were completely shut. Then bright lights came on, bathing everything in a harsh white glare. Core sagged in his seat, shaking. Now that his body knew he was safe, the adrenaline rush ended, leaving him completely drained.
That was when the enormity of what he was doing really hit Core. For six months he had been preparing the lab for their escape. He had connected the field generators to a capacitor which could be charged directly from the power grid. He had moved the three so called 'stasis nozzles' to surround the generator itself, leaving just enough room for his Humvee to be parked alongside and thus be in the field. The field....the field on which they had been working for years and which finally worked. Inside it, time slowed down from the sprinting of the hare to the crawl of the tortoise. Leaving a clock inside the field running for a week would make its hands - in reality measured as electrons spinning - advance one tenth of one percent of one picosecond. They had put various animals inside the field, and they had come out alive and apparently unaged and unchanged. And, the best part was, the field did not allow any matter to go through it, and would absorb any force applied to it without reaction. It made a perfect shield against a tsunami, earthquake and even a direct impact from an asteroid. Provided you could keep it running. Because the field ran only as long as it was powered, while eating gigawatts and gigawatts of electricity. It needed prodigious amounts of juice from the power grid, and a nuclear reactor besides that. And its power consumption increased exponentially with time - external time. It was as if the continuum were stretching like a rubber membrane, harder and harder to deform the more you pushed on it.After a week, they had to shut the field off or cause a state-wide blackout.

Core breathed deep, and then again, and again, and then he was able to get out of the car and push the lever that charged the capacitor. It would take five minutes to get enough power to start the generator. It would shut off almost immediately, of course, since the output could not be sustained. After the lab was sealed, all switchboxes had been destroyed. Core had been able to replace some of them, but the influx of power was way below what was needed to power the field for even a second. And the world would go in a deep blackout sometime during the night anyway.But there had been some talk among them. A mere theory, never seriously investigated unless the exponent had had at least two drinks. And Core had picked up on that and had done the math. Sober, using his computer to run a few simulations as well. He was, after all, the manager of the engineering group, had tons of experience and degrees and papers under his belt. And hands-on skills too. He should have been sent to whatever shelter the government had built, like so many of his colleagues had. But of course, they had figured he was a bit too attached to his ex wife.A potentially messy situation, him knowing all about it but refusing to go without her and her not wanting to go with him for whatever reason.

Better leave old Core in the dark, we got plenty of engineers to pick from, thank you very much, have a pleasant demise.So Core had to figure out a way to save himself and Katie without any help. He was pretty sure, that is, about 50%, which was enough under the circumstances, that if the generator and power supply were INSIDE the field, all it would take were a few fractions of a second of power to move them who knows how many years in the future. Hopefully in an era when air was again breathable, water was clean, and there were plants and animals to eat. He had tried to estimate the time, extrapolating from existing data collected when the generator ran with an external power supply, and had come up with error factors that spanned orders of magnitude. But in any case, whenever it stopped, the impact would be history. Forgotten history.

If it all worked in the first place.He had removed the rear seats of the Hummer and crammed the area with car batteries and another capacitor. As the power from the first capacitor would start fading, the one inside the car would pick up the slack for another pulse, hopefully keeping the generator running for another microsecond.That the 'stasis nozzles ' were inside the field didn't make a difference, since they were actually omni directional and while the generator was running, they remained outside of time. In fact, it was speculated that they crossed into another dimension. It had been discovered that the closer the stasis nozzles were, the stronger the time-dilating field. Core's field would be weaker than what he and his colleagues had used for tests, since the nozzles were placed around the generator, but nonetheless, a stasis effect should still be created. Again, his level of confidence was about 50%. There was some crazy math involved in trying to determine what changing each parameter would do to the field, and he had nobody to check his work.

Core hooked up the capacitor in the car to the generator, and then connected it to the batteries. It would be charged by the time it had to go into action and pick up the slack from the other capacitor. That was it. The generator would start when the capacitor was ready. Or not. He sat in the car next to his wife. She was still asleep, breathing slowly. A strand of brown hair had fallen on her forehead, and he pushed it back up.Oh Katie, will you thank me if we make it through? Will you hate me for not letting you die next to your new man, oblivious in your sleep? Will you...love me again?

Loud rapping on the doors, a window breaking, and all of a sudden smoke streaming in the hangar. They had found him...Fortunately he had brought gas masks along. He barely had room for supplies in the hummer, and the gas masks had been an afterthought. He had found them at a garage sale, and for some reason he picked them up and put them in his car on top of guns and K Rations. He quickly slipped one on him, the other one on Katie.Peering through the windshield, he saw flashlight beams cutting through the smoke, bathing the car in milky white light. Then the light started growing in intensity, became a harsh glare, changed colors rapidly crossing the spectrum until it became black, then back towards white, brighter than before, blinding him...

"Cornelius E. Husky, are you are out of your mind?"
He opened his eyes as the gas mask was being forcibly pulled off his face. Katie was staring at him with a mixture of anger, confusion and concern.
"Kidnapping?!? I wouldn't have expected that from you. What the hell has gotten into you? You were laid off, are you doing drugs now? Have you gone insane?"
"Katie, I can explain..." he cut in, realizing the lameness of his cliché as soon as he uttered it.
He added quickly and forcefully.
"I just saved our lives."
"Whatever!" she opened the passenger door and got out of the car.
Core quickly opened his door and descended. He saw Katie standing by the vehicle slowly turning around and taking it all in. All around them, the ground was perfectly flat, almost glossy. The sky was a deep shade of purple, turning to almost black above them, but there seemed to be some radiance coming from the ground that made the day very bright. The only thing breaking the perfectly flat horizon was a pyramidal structure. He found that he couldn't estimate distances, the prism could have been a hundred feet away and human-sized, or a mile away and the size of a skyscraper.

Katie turned to him, and asked in a calm voice betraying the onset of hysteria:
"Where have you taken me?"
Core gathered his wits and quickly walked to the other side of the Hummer. He looked her straight in the eye:
"Remember the asteroid that was supposed to pass by Earth the day I ... I got you? Well, it wasn't going to pass by. It hit. I knew it because they closed down the lab, no reason whatsoever given, most of the personnel disappeared too... In the lab we were working on a stasis field. I set that up to take us to the future. I think it worked....I don't know what year we ended in but..."
Suddenly, she turned away from him and started walking briskly towards the pyramid. He followed...
"Katie, please stop, we don't know what's there...could be dangerous."
She kept her pace. He briefly considered going back to the car for a gun, but he didn't want to leave her alone, not even a second, so he kept following.

As he was following Katie towards the pyramid, Core realized that the field generator next to which he had parked the car had disappeared during their stasis....The structure turned out to be only a hundred yards away and about thirty feet tall. It appeared to emanate from the ground itself, and appeared made from the same smooth material. They stood side by side looking at it.
The pyramid spoke:
"Welcome to my time. I think you have a lot of questions, so let me get the most obvious out of the way. You may want to sit down while I talk."
Right behind them, the ground rose in the stylized shape of a bench. Getting over the shock, now eager to find out more Core sat down. Katie sat next to him.
"The year is six million three hundred forty five thousand, one hundred twenty seven, AD. I am a global intelligence spanning the planet. Humankind has merged with computers and evolved into me. When I say humankind I refer to the few that survived the asteroid impact which I assume you fled. Sometime after I became aware, a date which I cannot pinpoint with reasonable accuracy since my memories contain personal memories and computerized records from before I appeared, I discovered the stasis field, at that time buried deep underground, a consequence of the impact. I reshaped the region to bring it to the surface and built a structure around it which I filled with breathable air. Then I waited for this day."
Core felt Katie's hand grasping his. He felt oddly disjointed. Part of his mind was rejoicing the feel of her hand, while another part, entirely separated, was trying to grasp the concepts the pyramid - no, the planet- had thrown at him. He swallowed hard and managed to formulate his first question:
"Aaaah are there any humans....er no offense, any ....like us, left?"
"After the impact, the biosphere never recovered enough to sustain a sizable population. After a few hundred years, technology progressed enough to make interstellar flight possible, albeit at subluminal speeds. A good percentage of the population left towards other stars, trying to establish colonies. Many succeeded. My ancestors kept communication with them for a while, but eventually communication stopped. My messages have never been answered. I don't know if any humans or any of their descendants survive to this day. But we will talk more on that subject later. "
Cornelius imagined galactic empires rising and falling, new worlds, all that happening while he and Katie were cocooned inside their stasis field, frozen in one instant. A song kept playing inside his head: 'In the year 2525/If man is still alive/ If woman can survive/They may find....' He didn't remember the rest of the words.

Katie's voice startled him:
"Have you sent any probes to those planets where people had gone before?"
"Yes, but none came back nor reported to me. I theorize that they malfunctioned. Computers error, mechanical failures, many things can happen during thousands of years in space."
Cornelius asked, puzzled:
" Couldn't they ...repair themselves? You said machines became intelligent. A drone with artificial intelligence should be able to repair itself to some extent or at least send a message back to you warning of damages ... or danger."
"I never said machines became intelligent. I said that humans merged with computers. The human mind might be imitated to some extent by a machine, but never in its complexity. The merging process occurred over hundreds of thousands of years, and was more complex than you can imagine. What has resulted, me, is a unique entity. I cannot spawn others like me. I cannot create clones of myself to send around the galaxy. I am barren and alone."

Cornelius clearly sensed the desperation even though the speech coming from the pyramid maintained an even tone. It sent chills down his spine. If something that big can be alone, if a mind spanning a planet fails to grasp the complexities of space travel and fails to find a way to reproduce, which even unicellular organisms had figured out over time....then what hope was there for him and Katie, possibly the last humans in the universe? What was to become of them?






To be continued…..in the future.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Stalker (Invasion Story 2)

Major Jane Randall had been watching that battleship for days. Ever since she had gotten close enough to the alien fleet to distinguish individual ships, her gaze had been attracted to the big hull always surrounded by auxiliary craft. There were three more 'battleships' - the term used for the Tau Cetians biggest warships - in the fleet, but Jane knew that this was the one worth keeping an eye on. This ship was about to take part in critical maneuver.

She had already alerted Mission Control of her suspicion. They were also monitoring this particular battleship full time. They would never doubt her hunch.

Jane was among of a select group of inter-service military personnel who had well developed ESP- extra-sensorial perception abilities. It was all hush-hush and cutting edge, of course. But, especially for a military pilot, where split-second decisions might mean the difference between life and death, the ability to choose the former course of action without any logical input was a very valuable commodity. And more so now, faced with a threat of which little was known.

If only it weren't so hot, Jane thought. She was wearing her pressure suit - mandatory during combat maneuvers- unzipped from the waist up, and rolled down with the sleeves artfully velcroed to her legs. This left her arms free to move around and reach for switches fast. She felt like she was sweating like a pig down there, but she needed the suit within fast reach.

She could have done away with the thick, itchy regulation sport bra. Not like anyone was around for at least 100 kilometers in any direction, including down.

But her breasts would get in the way, without gravity holding them down - not yet too far down though.

Her ship was the best thing Darpa, DOD, USAF, NASA and a few other alphabet soup government agencies had been able to build in the three years since the approaching fleet was first spotted. It was a prototype, but at over a hundred billion a piece, she doubted there will ever be a production line. There were two more approaching completion in two different locations in the US. Hopefully they would get a chance to enter the orbital fray soon.

She had been shadowing the cluster of enemy starships for a couple of weeks now, and so far she had been undetected. She communicated with Earth via a large estate of satellites in various orbits. When one came into view, she would send messages via microwave beams, which could not be detected unless the enemy happened to be in the path of the beam.

The satellite would then radio her message to Earth, and send messages to her via microwave beams as well. She was always within line of sight of at least three satellites, just in case some malfunctioned or were taken out by the enemy.

During the first skirmish in space, which lasted over a day as groups of ships came time and again within range of the tightly cluster alien formation over half of the interceptors launched from Earth had been taken out with inconclusive results.

The invaders had used powerful lasers as their sole defensive weapon so far. The main disadvantage of such system was that the beam needed to stay on target for more than ten seconds to destroy a vital component by melting through the skin. Erratic maneuvering had saved more than one Terran interceptor after the laser beams were 'felt' by outside temperature sensors.

Jane didn't have to worry about laser beams. The hull of her spacecraft was steel over an inch thick, evenly coated with a heat resistant ceramic shield. Besides that, a modulated electromagnetic field around the ship allowed light and any form of radiation to go around and continue on the other side. The efficiency of the system, which as little as ten years before had would have been considered science-fiction by all but a few privy scientists, was about 75%. That hardly made her ship invisible to radar, infrared and MK1 Eyeball, but since she always stayed between the enemy and the planet, her signature was lost in the background.

And, even more importantly, laser beams tended to do little damage.

The power requirements of the system were huge in the realm of conventional aerospace vehicles. But Jane's Stalker 1 carried a nuclear reactor which provided plenty of power. The nuclear reactor was also used to propel the craft by ionizing and heating gases from the tanks until they spurted out the rear nozzles with enormous speeds. Although technically a rocket engine, this system, descended from the venerable but abandoned NERVAs of the 60s and 80s was ten times more efficient than a chemical rocket engine in vacuum.

It was so powerful that it had been used for liftoff. The Orbiter portion of the Stalker was a prismatic shape with tiny windows and retractable control surfaces. Jane's interceptor was about ten times heavier than the fighters from the first wave of attacks, which had been launched twenty a piece on Orion boosters.

But with its powerful nuclear rocket engines, it could take off under its own power, albeit aided by two Solid Rocket Boosters like those used on the old Space Shuttles and a propellant tank which held compressed air.

It had gained speed under that configuration, then dropped the boosters and the tank and switched to a scramjet mode, then again to rocket using air from the internal tanks as it exited the atmosphere and slowly established itself on an orbit matching that of the bulk of the alien fleet, but slightly lower.

And for thirteen days Jane had been stewing in her own sweat, studying the alien vessels under 10x magnification through a telescope set up outside of the hull. It automatically compensated for the shimmer induced by the radiation deflection field which made her almost invisible to all wavelengths.

She was so close that she could see objects the size of human beings in bulky suits. She noticed some flitting around hulls, through a forest of antennas, turrets and other protrusions whose function she could only guess.

There were small craft shuttling between starships. Farther away numerous small drones orbited the fleet, generating intense radio and infrared signatures to deflect potential incoming missiles from the manned ships.

Jane had read about naval convoys transporting war material from England to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

The space fleet was a three dimensional version of such a formation, but with warships far outnumbering the transports. After days of peering through the lens - there wasn't much else she had to do, even in her spare time - she could tell the role of each ship.

The smaller armed vessels were continuously moving around, circling the fleet, just like fast destroyers used to patrol the waters around convoys, looking for enemy submarines.

In fact, everybody was already calling these ships destroyers. There were slightly larger versions, consequently called cruisers, patrolling at a slower pace.

Bulbous ships, probably tankers, would sometimes pull up alongside the escorts and flexible tubes would be drawn between them to exchange consumables.

Jane wondered how much fuel they still had after the interstellar journey, and if they could somehow replenish their stock.

In the middle of all this were the transports, carrying settlers and, Jane guessed, soldiers. These huge, needle shaped vessels were tethered in pairs and spinning slowly around a point halfway between them to create artificial gravity for their inhabitants.

Finally, arranged like the tips of a pyramid that enclosed the transports and other auxiliary craft, but inside the protective screen of cruisers and destroyers, were the four 'battleships'.

They were the biggest vessels in the fleet and were bristling with laser turrets. Each had its own escort of small, fast, spacecraft, dubbed corvettes.

The fleet arrangement was extremely conventional. Jane knew the attackers had broadcasted themselves as human-like, when they first made their demands via radio.

Yet, she, and other military personnel, was surprised by the classical military doctrine they used. It did not seem well suited for space combat. After expending less than a hundred lives, the attack from the United States had succeeded in destroying at least two transports and an unknown number of destroyers and cruisers.

The damages done were far disproportionate to the casualties. Unfortunately, it was a one shot deal. There were no more Orion boosters, and, save for Stalker 1, no other Terran ships in orbit. When the next Stalkers were completed and launched, the entire Terran space fleet would number three vessels.

Sure, there were a large number of nuclear missiles ready to strike at alien spaceships that tried to land or fly in the atmosphere, but the aliens definitely held the high ground.

The fleet's formation had remained unchanged since the attack. Something was bound to happen, soon. Soon became 'now' less than half an hour later.

Jane watched as ships that had previously been stationary in respect to her started moving, slowly. Two transports dropped outside of the screen of destroyers and drones, which altered its circling

pattern just enough to make an opening.

Jane quickly sent a message to base alerting them of the start of the landing operations. She trusted her intuition. Sure enough, as soon as they were out of the protective sphere, the transports disgorged aerodynamic shapes clearly designed for atmospheric flight. For the people below, war was coming home.

She focused her telescope on the battleship that had been like a bright light in her mind all this time.

Unsurprisingly to her, it too was moving. It exited the formation and pushed away and up. She was surprised at the rapid rate at which this big spacecraft changed its orbit.

A bright cloud of ionized particles streamed from its rear nozzles, and through the self-calibrating telescope she could actually detect the structure shaking under the relentless acceleration. Wherever it was going, it seemed like it intended to get there fast.

She knew she had to follow this battleship, so she sent a message to base asking for permission to do so. There was nothing she could do here, since one vessel with four missiles was like

a pinprick against this space armada.

The response came promptly. She was to refuel and the match orbits with the battleship. She had an inkling of where it was going, and she knew she needed full tanks for this encounter.

Jane was glad to leave the alien fleet. For the past two weeks she had to always be on her toes, alert that somebody might spot her spacecraft visually or on infrared.

It was time to move, but first she had to replenish her supply of propellant. The nuclear engine on the Stalker took air from the tanks and heated it to temperatures approaching those of in the sun. The superheated gas, actually plasma. was contained by magnetic fields inside the engine such that it wouldn't damage the structure. It could only escape aft through the nozzles, where it reached near relativistic speeds. Huge amounts of thrust were generated by even a few ejected of particles.

While in the atmosphere, the engine could feed itself with air directly through two forward inlets, functioning like a scramjet although little combustion actually occurred.

At the same time, some of the flow of air could be diverted to the tanks. Pumps and refrigerators, using both mechanical systems and magnetic fields, liquefied the inflow and stored it inside the

constantly cooled propellant tanks.

The refueling maneuver would take time. Jane had to de-orbit carefully, using only cold thrusters and only when there was no chance that the sun's rays could create a glitter in the frozen water molecules in the exhaust.

As her orbit changed, she would lose contact with the microwave satellites and had to rely on radio signals, but within the atmosphere and wherever the planet was between her and the fleet that was a non-issue.

Before she reached that safe distance, she had a few hours of blackout when it was too risky to send any signals by radio. That was OK, she had permission to pursue the battleship, and that was all it mattered. She had enjoyed the solitude of the past two weeks after the hectic training she had to endure for almost a year before she launched.

Jane, because of her extraordinary intuition, had often been regarded as aloof, arrogant and a know it all. It had made her life painful ever since early childhood.

She had learned to dumb herself down in the company of others, but because of this constraint she had always preferred to be alone.

Her scheduled sleep cycle came while the ship was de-orbiting. By now the alien fleet was far away and there was no need to mask the emissions. The computer would handle the maneuvers. She made sure to take advantage of this down time, full eight hours, as she had a feeling it would be a while before she could afford another 'night' of rest.

Jane woke up a little before the clock’s alarm rang. A slight buffeting could be felt as the Stalker was floating over the outer fringes of the atmosphere at 7.9km/s.

Time to dip in for a little juice. Her trajectory would mirror a flat stone skipping on a pond. A glide, then a hop, then another glide, until the tanks were full.

She could only refuel in small gulps because it took time for the pumps to compress and liquefy the air, thus only small volumes could be processed at one time.

Also, the heating from atmospheric friction made the refrigerators work extra hard. During the hops, heat was radiated away from the spacecraft through 'wings' deployed just for this purpose. Jane hoped the wings worked better than the life support coolers so that she could enjoy some brief periods of not feeling stuffy.

After two weeks the air recyclers were overloaded processing all her perspiration, and small globes of liquid had formed around the air vents. She supposed it must smell really bad in the cramped confines of the spacecraft. For two weeks she had washed with a sponge, urinated in jars and defecated in plastic bags. Jane couldn’t smell anything because she had slowly grown accustomed to her emanations. Plus her nose was stuffy from the liquids inside her body that, no longer pulled by gravity, somehow floated towards her head.

The hours droned. The ship plunged in the soup, shuddered for half an hour at a time, then came out and everything became still again, save for the landscape of continents parading down below. During these periods she looked through the window intently, trying to spot invasion craft descending from space and the missiles sent to intercept them. The IR pod was tucked in behind the heatshield and only her eyes could tell if she was heading straight into an area peppered with nuclear blasts.

But save for some flashes far away, not anywhere near her orbital path, she didn't spot anything.

Being inside the Van Allen belt prevented radio communications. She got no messages during this time. But as soon as she finished refueling and started on her way to a higher orbit, the radio panel gave a warning tone which indicated it had received an encoded message. She knew before the message started playing that it was a bearer of bad news...

"Battleship in stationary orbit over US attacking our troop concentrations with lasers. Set for intercept at max rate. Trajectory uploaded."

She checked the data. Just as she’d thought...bad news. She'd be heading there at full throttle, setting up on a highly eccentric orbit with the battleship at its apogee. No subtleties either. For sure they'd be spotting her exhaust signature and know she was coming. And when she reached the enemy, she'd be barely moving in relation to them. They'd have a leisure time taking aim at her.

She would be almost out of fuel by the time the single burn was finished. She couldn't change her orbit appreciably. However, the perigee would be at a very low altitude, where there was enough atmosphere to run the scramjets and refuel.

Till then, she planned to use the gas left in her tanks for some attitude adjustments - and crazy jockeying once she got close to her target. Fortunately the thick hull and the radiation deflectors would keep those pesky lasers at bay.

Speaking of lasers, it must be really hot down there - literally - to risk her on this almost suicide mission.

From this far away, and partly blocked by the atmosphere, the lasers potency should be greatly diminished on the ground, but for sure they were setting wide areas afire. And what they would do to an exposed human being....She shuddered. No wonder they wanted her to get that battleship fast.

..........................................

She spotted the corvettes as tiny stars moving away from the brighter dot which was the battleship. They were coming for her. She would wait till the last minute and then fire her missiles. She was actually inside a laser beam if the hull temperature readouts were correct. The indices were slowly increasing, but they were nowhere near critical. She wanted to save fuel and would only break away from the beam when she was about to launch the nuclear missiles. She had set them to detonate on impact such that even if one, two, three of the four were taken out, the remaining would cripple the starship.

..........................................................................

Multiple objects were coming straight at her. Three of them, the biggest with the most active IR signatures were corvettes, and the rest must be drones.

The battleship was now so close that it could see its shape with the unaided eye.

She fired the lateral thrusters at full power and the ship yanked itself out of the laser beams which had been steadily tracking it.

Right away she fired all four missiles in a fanning pattern. She watched them speed away, accelerated at hundreds of Gees by their powerful solid rocket motors.

And then she put her out of her mind and concentrated on her own defense. The holographic display showed the incoming vessels as dots with velocity vectors attached to them. The drones vectors were slowly decreasing, which meant they were matching velocities with her. They were going to box her in, and then probably detonate together.

She saw the corvettes change direction to chase her missiles. They were out of the equation now. A series of random maneuvers scattered the drones. Their artificial brains were slow in trying to catch up with her.

She spared a few moments to catch a glimpse of the battleship as it was hit by two missiles simultaneously. The other two must have been taken out. She saw huge explosions rip through the hull but the ship had stayed in one piece. Disappointed, she kept watching the battleship and was rewarded with glimpses of secondary explosions in other areas. These guys won't be frying our soldiers anymore, she grinned triumphantly.

She hear a tiny noise, then another and another...until they became a rapping. Sensors on the hull recorded impacts, but the objects were too small to be detected by radar and they had no infrared signatures whatsoever.

Space buckshot, she thought wryly. She fired the main engine at full power, hoping to get away from the hail before it damaged her ship.

Instead of smoothly accelerating, her craft lurched violently sideways. She watched a array of red lights lit up her panel. The tank had been penetrated and all fuel was now gone. The hail stopped and a look through the forward window revealed the twisted hulk of the crippled battleship heading straight for her.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reentry (Invasion Story #1)

For this view, space tourists pay millions. I got it for free. And it will make a soothing background as I run out of oxygen and slowly die. At least I stabilized the spin, finally. It was making me sick. But now I can even look to my left and get only mildly queasy. There's supposed to be a short stubby wing tilted at a 45 degree angle, with a moving surface at the trailing edge. Instead, there's a hole in the side of my ship. From my vantage point in the cockpit, I can see some cables sticking out. A punctured thruster propellant tank still vents a visible stream of gas, but the pressure has dropped such that the exhaust has no effect on my prow first, upside down drifting.

My comm. antenna, deployed during the brief battle, is gone and I can't raise anyone on the radio.We flew off the Orion first stage into seemingly random orbits, but each of the 20 ships would pass close enough to the enemy fleet to be able to launch our tactical nukes at the same time. The warheads coming from all quarters were theorized to be able to confuse their defense systems and allow us to score some hits. We were to do multiple passes, as our orbits had been designed to intercept theirs more than once. And even if the fleet were to take evasive action - and we thought they were so out of fuel after breaking into LEO that they wouldn't - our nimble interceptors could alter orbit inclination by many degrees and we could get them again and again.And it worked...the mass attack scored some hits. Not actual hits, mind you, but the warheads were proximity detonated. I saw one of their smaller armed ships - we call them destroyers - simply explode. Who knows what we'd hit, maybe their fuel tanks. And one of their transports started spinning crazily, venting gas from a huge gash in its side. I had leisure time as we were moving away to see it start to drop lower and lower, launching rescue pods. It made me feel kind of bad. We know there's innocent people there. Settlers with their families and such. And even though they come from a different star system, they look just like us. Wonder how'd that happen. Exobiology as a science has just started with a bang. I think it would have been easier not to feel bad about it if they'd been some freaky bug-eyed monsters. But, c'est la guerre...they want to rule our planet and settle over us...and we don't.

I got hit by a laser beam just as I thought I was safe. We were moving away on an orbit similar to theirs but at a slightly different inclination. First I saw some of the temperature gauges go into red...fast. Especially the left auxiliary tank. I looked to the left just as the tank blew up and with it my left winglet. The ejected mass changed my trajectory and that saved me from getting fried as the laser beam lost its lock on my tiny fighter. I decide to recap my situation and make an inventory of my resources. Nobody can come and save me. I am now rather far from the rest of my squadron, on a lower, faster orbit. I have 72 hours of oxygen left and - the on-board computer tells me - about a week till I re-enter the atmosphere unassisted. I can't survive re-entry with one wing missing and a big hole in my side. First of all a spacecraft has to maintain a certain attitude - heat shield first - in order to deflect the reentry heat from its vulnerable skin.

But, even if through some miracle the ship maintains that attitude as it plummets down towards the ground, air superheated by kinetic friction will enter through the rupture and melt the ship's innards and yours truly.The main fuel tank is intact and other than for the egress from the mother-ship, I haven't used any fuel. I can deorbit at any time. Although one of the six cold thrusters and its associated helium tank are gone, I can use the remaining five to change the ships attitude at will. I managed to stop the spinning, after all.If only I could drop enough speed - and fast enough - to reduce the reentry heat loading by a significant degree, I might survive this. I don't need to worry about landing with a missing control surface, as I can eject at low altitude if I first manage to slow down enough.But even if I fire the main engine at full power until all the fuel onboard is exhausted, it won't make that much of a difference in the delta V. We were only supposed to use it for relatively minor orbit changes and for the final deorbit burn. All these maneuvers were performed rather slowly. We'd know in advance, from satellites and ground based trackers, where the enemy fleet would go trying to escape us. We'd have plenty of time to adjust our orbit accordingly. We had been brought up to orbital speeds and altitude by a huge Orion launcher, detonating nuclear bombs in its wake to increase its speed in thunderous, bum rattling bursts. As such, our rocket engines are not required to be powerful. They were designed to be very efficient and make the best use of the limited amount of propellant available.By the time I'd finished all the fuel in my tank through a full-throttle burn, I would already be toasted crisp about 30,000ft above the ground. No use wishing for a more powerful rocket motor now.....wait a minute!

I only fired one of my missiles during the first encounter with the alien fleet. I have three missiles left in the bay just behind the cockpit. If I could somehow remove the warheads and fire the missiles while deployed, but still attached to the rail... It'd be a real kick, maybe ten or so Gs from each missile, with forty seconds of burn time, but subtract that and the main engine delta V from my current velocity and I would reduce the peak heating maybe in half. I use the ship's computer to make these calculations. Of course, I have no idea if the damaged ship can take even that. Most definitely we will start rolling as soon as we hit some air because of the missing wing. I'll have to patch that hole somehow. It's a chance of a snowball in hell that I make it down to an eject-safe altitude still alive, but it's a hundred percent chance I die if I don't do anything about it.

And what a shame that would be. Cause, Lieutenant James Reynolds, you dreamt about flying in combat and about flying in space ever since you watched Battle of Britain and seen your first and last Shuttle launch. You just never figured you'd get to do both things at the same time. Or buy the farm during your very first mission. Into your academy years you dreamed about being in tight spots on a dying spaceship or surrounded by hostile fighters, always saving the day, just like they do in movies. Time to see if there's any grain of truth in science fiction.First part is easy. I deactivate the warheads using the a text-based command line interface pulled from deep within the weapons computer. All that training and my nerdiness is paying off. I read everything I could get find about the F1000 interceptor and quizzed our instructors until I could see them cringe every time I raised my hand in class.Now there's absolutely no way the warheads will ever go off unless reset and reinitialized, which of course I don't plan on doing. I deploy all three missiles. The pylons pop out behind me and looking up through the hatch window I can see the conical warheads, almost two feet in diameter. These babies are big! I eject the toolkit from its compartment in the instrument panel- I bet they thought this was wasted payload mass. Then I put my helmet on and connect it to the portable air tanks strapped to my back. Too bad I can't hook up to the ship's life support. The engineers that built this thing didn't account for EVERY possible scenario. Bless them, they built a wonderful ship with plenty of redundancy and that redundancy might just save my life. I'll be using quite a lot of air, and I'll have to hold my breath for a while if I eject too high up. Oh well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. My suit is now pressurized and I vent the air out of the cabin, then pop the hatch open. I float out of the cockpit, attached by the ship with a safety line, almost banging my head on one of the missiles in the process.

And then I look around and it hits me...All blank space, all around me, no point of reference. No up, no down....just the planet suspended above me...or below me, looking much bigger than it did when seen through thick glass. I am just a speck of matter surrounded by a void stretching to infinity, I am so alone...there's no way I can make it out of this alive....and as I float to the end of the tether I get yanked back. The physical shock shatters my wakeful nightmare. I wedge my boots between the frame of the open hatch and the top of my seat and start working on the warheads. I cut the thin aluminum skin and then unscrew each of them from the mount that holds it attached to the body of the missile. After about ten minutes of unscrewing and pulling, I finally have the first warhead completely free. I pause to think about what will happen to it. I plan to throw it far ahead, such that there is no chance of it hitting me as I 'brake' the ship. Eventually it will reenter the atmosphere. There will be no radiation leak, because the shroud is designed to withstand the heat. The missiles were made to be used, if need be, from orbit against ground targets. Of course, now the warheads won't explode on impact, but they might shatter and thus radioactive material will be spilled on the ground. I hope it will fall in the ocean and remain intact, but you can never tell. Of course, after what we did to the environment by launching five Orions, and considering what would happen if the invaders decide to bomb us, the paltry amount of material I'm dropping is hardly cause for concern. Yet, I have this nagging vision of a child picking up a piece of glowing weapons grade uranium from the mud. I absolutely can't think about it if I want to live. I put my arm around a missile pylon and fling the warhead as far as I can, then, without pausing, I proceed to work on the next one. By now I have figured out the drill and for the remaining two it only takes five minutes to get rid of them. I disconnect the red wires that activate the mechanism that detaches the missiles from their rails and pushes them forward and away upon firing. I hope the clamps are strong enough to hold the missiles attached to the pylons later on.

For an added measure of safety, at least in my mind, I bend the front part of the rails over the missiles' body and intertwine them around the warhead mounts. Then I go investigate the damage. The gash looks almost sealed, the laser beam has melted components and framework into an almost uniform gray layer which now is solidified again. That's good news, as nothing I have aboard can cover the damage. Done with the outside work, I scurry back inside and pressurize the cockpit. Again I curse the lack of an oxygen line to attach to my helmet. I'm wasting air while waiting for the pressure to reach breathable level.But I'm not wasting time. I arm the missiles and start the ignition procedure for the main engine. It's going to take a few minutes to prep it for firing as it's been offline for a few hours now. I wrestle with the attitude thrusters and manage to bring the ship in a retrograde position, so that when I fire the engine and the missiles I will be shedding velocity. Finally I am able to put up the visor and stop precious air from flowing out of the portable tanks. I'm all strapped in and ready for the jolt. If a missile separates during firing, it's quite possible it will come into the cockpit and decapitate me. In that case, I hope it will happen too quickly for me to realize my impending demise.

The main engine is ready, and I push the ignition button, then steadily advance the throttle until it hits the stop. I feel a slight acceleration pushing me in my seat.Time to light the fires.I say a quick prayer I remember from childhood and push the firing button on one of the missiles. My right hand is firmly gripping on the stick to steady the rotation induced by the slightly asymmetric thrust of the rocket. 3...2...1.... I am suddenly pushed in my seat and everything rattles. Including the stick in my hand, making the attitude thrusters fire randomly. I grind my teeth and stare at the flight path predictor display, moving the stick around until the rotation is neutralized, then bringing the ship back to retrograde. After 40 seconds of sweating, praying and cussing, the missile is exhausted and the shaking stops. No time to rest, I have to do this as fast as possible, cause by now I must be falling towards the atmosphere. I fire the second missile, then the last one. My attitude thrusters are all but exhausted. The main engine is still firing at full throttle. I go outside again. By now the planet appears a little larger in my field of vision. Seems the continents parading below me are also moving slower. I unscrew the rails, all the while keeping a weary eye on the horizon, which is the best way to gauge my altitude. Fortunately the pylons appear undamaged and they should be able to retract. On second thought, maybe I should leave them out deployed. They might stabilize me a little bit and provide extra drag to slow me down faster. They have special coating to withstand hot exhaust gases in case a missile fires too soon. Maybe they won't melt during reentry. Removing the rails seems to take forever. Fortunately there's a modicum of gravity from the continuous thrust of the engine, and I am able to support myself against the open hatch. As soon as I'm done, I push the missiles away and rush back in the cockpit.

And not a moment too soon. The hazy layer that marks the atmosphere when seen from orbit has disappeared, which means I am about to enter the soup. I shut off the main engine and vent all the propellant out as a precaution. It's about to get hot. I bring the ship into an approximation of re-entry attitude - normally the computer would do that, but in my case it doesn't matter that much, I bet we won’t remain in that position for too long. I got so used to the missing thruster by now that I can maneuver without burning too much propellant, which I'm almost out of. We’re coming down hot and heavy!First, I feel a slight buffet and a rolling tendency, which I counteract with the thrusters until finally their fuel is completely exhausted.I switch to aerodynamic controls and set the right elevator and the right body flap full up, while the left body flap will be down. I hope this will slow the rolling motion due to the missing wing, or, rather, due to the asymmetric lifting force produced by the right wing. The buffeting increases and soon the horizon rolls around me so fast that sky and earth blur together. I tumble end over end and all I can do is hang on, try to hold the contents of my stomach in, and pray.

It starts getting warm, then hot. That's it, I've had it. I expect the ship to fall apart at any minute. But nothing happens and my altitude indicator winds down while my Mach meter has dropped below one....I made it. I deploy the drogue chute which is supposed to slow the ship down after landing.In this case, I will use it to stabilize my fall before bailing out.I feel a great yank and the sickening rolling stops. The nose is now pointing straight down and I see green under me. Before I started the engines for deorbit, I made sure I'd be over land when and if I made it into the lower atmosphere. I was moving southwest and I started my de-orbit burn over Siberia, by the arctic circle. By now I must be over Southern Europe. The air pressure in my tanks is almost zero. I pull the eject handle and, surely for the last time today, I feel the great kick in the butt only a rocket can deliver. I am out now, I clear the drogue chute and then my own chute opens and the seat falls off. I take one last look at my ship falling away from me and thank her for bringing me back alive.

I feel sadness as if I leave a dear friend behind, knowing I won’t ever see them again.I am gently floating under a beautiful clear sky, and am low enough to raise my helmet's visor and pull in a breath of fresh air. I am very lucky to do so and all I can do is be thankful that somebody's been watching out for me. What a story this will make! By now I'm low enough that I feel I have a chance with my rugged cell phone, which I carried with me in a breast pocket throughout the entire mission.I get a couple of bars and I am roaming. That makes me smile...the bill is going to be huge. I try to call my wife and let her know I'm OK. Says network is busy. I try to call my CO on his landline and I get no answer. I try to call various numbers in the states and cannot get through. What the hell is going on? Could it be... I tune in on a radio station, it's in Italian. I understand some..."Gli Extraterestri...Stati Uniti..invasione" all in a very urgent voice and that's all I need to hear. War has come home and I need to find a way to get there and defend my country and protect my family. The ground is coming up, I steer towards a pasture and I get ready to land.

Backup (Asteroid Story #2)

Helen Jones was still utterly puzzled. She had been puzzled ever since she had been told she was part of the crew of the first manned mission to Mars. Lots of ‘M’s there, and after the decision had been made public, she started to enjoy the way those three words were rolling inside her mouth or her mind, like seldom indulged delicious morsels of chocolate.

The choices for the crew and their backups didn’t make any sense. Twelve men and twelve women, six of each sex making up the prime crew and the rest their backups. Out of the pool of two hundred candidates who had been training together, hoping and praying, until the last moment, the chosen were definitely not the most accomplished scientists, nor the most qualified engineers. If fact, Helen thought as she reviewed their faces, they were some of the youngest and in best physical shape. It was almost as if they intended to make the entire mission a reality show. Which, come to think of it, was not that far-fetched.

They were all assembled inside the spacious inflatable module docked to the spaceship which would take twelve lucky human beings to Mars. On the other side of the cylindrical airbag was a capsule, which would take the twelve not so lucky backups (unless something happened to one of the primes) back to Earth. However, even the backups had something to be proud of. At the moment, the twenty-four people floating around sipping drinks were the only human beings outside of the planet’s atmosphere.

Still, Helen thought it was kind of cruel to have the backups take part in the reception preceding the launch, only two days away. They were all to be addressed directly by the president, receive congratulations and best wishes, and yet, half of them would return to Earth, back to their ordinary lives, in 48 hours. What a disappointment for some ambitious young people, no doubt each and every one of them an overachiever.

At thirty, Helen was of average age among the astronauts. At twenty-one she had graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Throughout college she had been involved with the school’s fencing team, winning several regional competitions.
She wasn’t motivated enough to try for the Olympic team, although many said she was good enough for it. She also enjoyed mountain-climbing and hang gliding. It was the soaring on ascending currents over mountain slopes, or on thermals under a juicy cumulus cloud, that spurred her passion for weather phenomena. After graduation, instead of fighting for a position as an engineer in a weak job market, she decided to pursue a doctorate degree in meteorology. Within a year she had all the preliminary courses completed and had secured a teaching position, which would finance the rest of her education and all living costs. Her doctorate thesis, a new forecast model for tracking hurricanes, benefited from her experience with computer programming and fluid dynamics. Over the next few years it proved more accurate than the established models, and that brought her a modicum of prestige. When she decided to apply for the Mars mission, she was working for NOAA, dividing her time between tracking storms and improving her forecast model. She had remained faithful to her college hobbies, which kept her in top shape, and over the years she had earned her commercial pilot’s license.

Still, compared to Norm Dawsond, the forty year old British meteorologist, physicist and geologist, former RAF test pilot who had flown Lockheed Orions into some of the most dangerous storms on record, Helen felt like her entire career was a joke. And yet, he wasn’t even one of the backups. Comparing her background to those of the selected astronauts, Helen realized it was something they all shared, or rather lacked, that had played an important part in the selection process: a family. Helen had grown up in a foster house, and her foster parents, although they were nice people, had always been rather distant to her. They had their own children. Helen often wondered why they had taken her up in the first place. She never found out what had happened to her real parents.

After she left for college, she quickly lost touch with her foster family, spending her holidays at school or traveling.
A string of short relationships followed, short because most of the men she was dating, when they weren’t total creeps, ended up leaving her when the physical passion had subsided, claiming she was too cold, too distant. Helen knew her childhood had shaped her that way, but she couldn’t change the way she was and she ended up accepting the facts and making her job the focus of her life.

From what she had glimpsed from the published bios and the conversations with the other astronauts who had made it this far, they all were in situations equivalent to hers. A bunch of young, healthy geniuses with no emotional ties to the world spinning slowly under them. And now half of them were floating around sipping champagne from plastic bags grinning foolishly, while the other half, the losers, were acting a lot more restrained.
For the next nine months, six men and six women, all single, all crammed inside a spaceship. It was as if NASA and its partners had figured out that no matter what, there will be some hanky panky, and didn’t want to have anyone left out. After all, they will by themselves, with almost no privacy between them, for three years. Sex is, after all, a healthy way to take out frustrations.
Helen surveyed the males in the module. She knew all of them, of course, but she hadn’t made friends or lovers with any. Before they were selected, they had all kept their zippers shut. Nothing like a little ‘incident’ going on your record to get you washed out. But in two days…well, all bets were off. She smiled inwardly. Nobody here was looking for a life mate. Her inability to express her feelings except during passionate sex might prove to be an asset.

Finally Capcom initiates a to way link with the White House, and now all twenty four of them are stacked neatly on three rows in front of a big screen with a wide angle camera on top of it.
The president’s face appears on the screen. He looks…unkept. He has no make-up on, and you can see from the purple bags under his eyes and his sagging shoulders that he hasn’t slept in a while. He’s wearing a turtleneck. It’s all so strikingly unofficial that Helen feels the stir among the floating bodies around her.
The president looks straight at the camera and starts speaking:
“You will no doubt be in great shock after what I am about to tell you. Please try to remain calm and listen to me till the end. After that, I will take questions for ten minutes.
Half of you are expecting to depart for Mars in forty-eight hours and the other half to return to Earth. Neither of these events will occur. In twelve hours, an asteroid will hit Earth, with civilization-ending consequences.
It is the same asteroid that sixteen months ago caused a big scare when it seemed to be on a collision path with our planet. Then the people were told that refinements in the object’s trajectory computations showed that the rock would pass very close to Earth, but at a safe distance. That was a lie, perpetrated to avoid panic. We knew we couldn’t do anything to avoid a direct hit and all its consequences, which, as scientists, I’m sure most of you are aware of.
However, we have made preparations to ensure that our species will survive. We have built a shelter in the mountains of our country where a large number of people will survive the tsunamis, the earthquakes and the global winter caused by particles ejected into the atmosphere by the impact and the awakened volcanoes. Other countries have built similar arcs.
We hope these shelters will keep their occupants alive until Earth is habitable again, be that in one year, ten years or a hundred years. But we cannot be sure. An impact of this magnitude has never been witnessed, and all we have to go with are our simulations. So we decided to create a fail-safe system. We rushed the Manned Mission to Mars project and adapted it to the new situation. Your ship is in fact a space station. The engine and propellant modules are not operational. They are crammed with supplies and equipment designed to allow you to survive in space for ten years, and provide additional living accommodations for those of you selected as backups. Hidden hatches to those compartments are now activating and from now on you will all have access to them.

Information deemed necessary for your survival has already been stored in your central computer, and is now accessible to anyone onboard. The inflatable habitat you are now in and the Earth return capsule will remain part of your new home until you all decide to come back down, hopefully to a reborn planet.
I know that during your training, all of you, at one time or another, have expressed puzzlement over some of the decisions that were made, in the astronaut selection process or in the design of the mission and the ship. Well, I hope everything is clear now. We did what we had to do. I trust each and every one of you will acquit of his or her new tasks and will not let the others down…You will have an active part in relaying communications between groups of survivors, monitoring weather conditions on the surface and offering whatever assistance is possible to the people down here.

This news might be too much of a shock for some of you. This is why…I feel ashamed to have to tell you what comes next…we have decided to put the ship on automatic control during the next week. For your own safety, you will not be able to open airlocks, fire thrusters, or do anything even remotely hazardous.
I’m really sorry people. God has a plan for us all, it does not include me wishing you a good trip to Mars tonight. Instead, I see in you the future of our species. Possibly its only survivors. God bless you all, and…carry on the fire. I will take your questions now.”
For an entire minute everyone was silent. Helen felt she was chocking. She kept swallowing, but the sensation remained. Finally, Frank Torne, the mission commander, broke the silence:
“Mr. President, we will do our best. The responsibility you have placed on us is even greater than that we faced as explorers. We will not let you down, sir.”

A girl in front of Helen, one of the engineers, timidly raised her hand:
“Sir, won’t the tidal waves and earthquakes cause meltdown in nuclear power-plants across the world? Will the survivors be able to deal with that?”
“You are right. We initiated measures to shut off and secure out nuclear plants, but the operation started only a week ago. We decided to provide people with all the commodities of life up to the very last moment…
There will be meltdowns and radioactive fallout will affect extended areas, depending on the weather conditions after impact. Our shelter, and probably those of other countries as well, are equipped with closed circuit air circulation systems. If anybody survives the impact outside of such shelters, they will have to make their way to one as fast as possible. For a while, Earth will not be habitable, at least for most of the higher life-forms, with or without radioactive fallout. I’m not a scientist myself, so I will not go into much detail. You can read about this in the files.”

There were few other questions. The astronauts were still reeling from the news. When the ten minutes were almost up, Helen raised her hand:
“Mr. President, what will you do?”
The look she got back was that of the condemned: full of sadness and guilt for not being able to prevent such a catastrophe.
“Good bye, my child” he said, and then the comm link was cut.
After a few brief instructions from NASA, they were isolated. They were to attempt to communicate with the US shelter, called Hopeland, about eight hours after impact, when they would pass over the United States mainland.
Controlled completely by the onboard computers, maneuvering thrusters on the ship started to fired intermittently to change the station’s orbit.

The asteroid impact would liberate tremendous amounts of energy, and some of it would fly in all directions as an electromagnetic burst, destroying any electronic components in its path, including those in satellites. Originally the spaceship was in an equatorial orbit. Now its inclination was slightly increased to keep the region of impact beyond the horizon for the next twenty-four hours. Although the burst of electromagnetic energy was predicted to last only a few seconds, a healthy margin of safety had been dictated by Houston. Just in case things turn out differently…
As Helen browsed the introductory notes to the first chapter of what was in fact a survival manual for the men and women in orbit, she realized that the event of an object of such dimensions had never been investigated in detail. Most of the articles were less than sixteen months old. It was as if before the impact became a certainty, at least among the few let in on the truth, nobody had even bothered to consider a collision of this magnitude a possibility. Helen had seen this complacency in a lot of people who should have known better during her hurricane tracking days. They thought that if they ignored the storm bearing down on them it will not come their way.

The reports, probably hastily prepared by a small group or government researchers, were full of assumptions and estimates with ranges of several orders of magnitude. It was known that at least two large asteroids had hit Earth in the past. The first one, at the end of the Permian period, two hundred and forty five million years ago, killed 90% of all life forms. The latter, sixty-five million years ago, contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs. And both were a lot smaller than the one about to hit. All the known effects-tsunamis, earthquakes, massively intensified volcanism, ejected material filling the atmosphere and darkening the skies, all these were going to be present but with a much larger intensity. Not only will all life forms dwelling on the surface and in the oceans be eliminated, but for the few humans that might possibly survive the impact and ensuing dark winter, living on the surface might not be an option for maybe millions of years. The picture the president had painted had been rather optimistic. The reality was that some of the gases ejected from the impact and awakened volcanoes were aerosols which would react with the ozone layer that protected all life from harmful ultraviolet radiation. In spite of herself, Helen snickered inwardly. Humans had been doing a pretty good job at destroying the ozone layer through industrial activity for over a century. Now mother nature again shows she can do better.
Without plants to create oxygen, the levels of this gas will drop, possibly so much that the air will become unbreathable.

All this makes one wonder: what’s the point of even trying to survive? The cliché ‘Life will never be the same’ applies here. Never will you be able to rest in a shade of a tree with birds chirping, butterflies chasing each other and the sun shining in a blue sky amongst clouds of made of mainly water and not a bunch of corrosive chemicals. She thought about the people below, almost all of them about to die and not know about it until the very last moment. At this moment she wanted to be one of them.

Then she realized that this was the first time she actually thought about the fact that a lot of people were going to die in the next hours and days. The realization hit her like a punch in the stomach. She forced herself not to retch while she was slamming her laptop’s folding screen shut.
Her living quarters, which she had tried to make as homely as possible, with pictures taped to the walls and her teddy bears velcro’d over her bunk, felt like somebody else’s room. Someone who less than two hours ago was euphoric, exhilarated, eager to explore the unknown in the name of humankind. How things have changed for all of them with the president’s message…humankind reduced to a few scattered groups of people fighting for survival, while Earth will become as lifeless as Mars and maybe just as deadly for the unprotected human.
Helen floated back to the inflatable module. Some of the astronauts were still there, carrying hushed conversations. There was nothing to do until after the impact. They won’t even be able to see it. Or…wasn’t there something about all satellite codes being relinquished to the space station? She went back inside the ship, then on the ‘bridge’, where the controls and communication equipment was installed. Consoles and displays filled the cabin’s walls, except for small triangular windows in the nose of the spacecraft. It felt warmer than anywhere else on the ship, due to all the electronic components, and the fans which cooled them emitted a steady purr which she found oddly comforting. Oddly, the cockpit was empty. She set to work on one of the many computers there, trying to piece together a picture of the world below during its death. Maybe somebody will want to see this someday.