Ringside, by Andrew G. McCann

 

Ringside Seat
by E.S. Strout

 

A sudden snow squall blinded the downhill skier. In the oblivion of whiteout he impacted the sturdy pine tree head-on at over twenty miles per hour. He was located ninety minutes later by the Aspen Ski Patrol, unconscious and bleeding from both ears . . .


1.

The two NASA astronauts punched in their security codes
as Air Force security personnel double-checked their I.D. Tags.  The titanium-steel door slid open with a soft hiss.  USAF Major-General Andrew J. Shaw, a slender bespectacled black man, sat at a conference table sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup.  His glance was sharp, commanding. “Retinal scans please, officers.”

“Is this necessary?” the civilian mission specialist complained.  “Retinal patterns don’t change.”

A scowl from General Shaw.  “Security, Professor.  You know the drill.  What’s the problem?”

“Gives me a headache.”

They stepped to the scanning device and peered into its depths for a second.  A green light beeped acceptance and the small screen concurred:

Commander Janice L. Erwin, USN

Mission Specialist James J. Murdoch, PhD

“Good. Help yourselves to coffee.”

“Why all the secrecy, General Shaw?” Commander Erwin, a slender, dark-haired, thirty-eight-year-old veteran of twenty missions, asked.

“Coming right up.”  The general clicked a remote at the six-foot CRT wall screen. “Recognize this, Professor Murdoch?”

The twenty-eight-year-old Ph.D. rubbed his prematurely balding scalp and nodded. “The Saturn ring system, sir.”

“Bingo. And you guys are going there.”


2.

Commander Erwin was the first to find her voice.
“Mars was easy, sir,  but how the hell do we do Saturn?”

Shaw lit up a Marlboro. He speared Professor Murdoch with an icepick-sharp glance. “You remember the CASSINI mission, Prof?”

Dr. Murdoch massaged his temples, squinted his eyelids shut and emitted a soft groan.

“Dr. Murdoch?”

“Headache, sir. Retinal scan sets it off.”  He popped two aspirin tablets, swallowed with a gulp of ice water.

The General tapped an ash from his cigarette. He flipped pages on a clipboard.  “I know about your surgery.  Skiing accident, right?”

“It’s all in my file, General.”

“Hmm.”  Shaw raised an eyebrow.  “Says here I approved your medical waiver request.”

“Indeed, sir. Since then I’ve made a shuttle flight and a Mars exploratory mission, all without incident.”

General Shaw cracked a brief grin.  “The CASSINI mission, Doc?”


3.

“Of course, sir.” 
Dr. Murdoch ticked events off on his fingertips. “Saturn probe launched in 1997.  Earth gravital slingshot in 1999 after two Venus flybys, programmed to arrive in Saturn space June 2004. It didn’t attain Saturn orbit.  SATCOM at JPL Cal Tech lost contact, it was never reestablished.”

The general exhaled a cloud of tobacco-combustion products.  “That’s what you and the rest of the world were told.”

“Say again, sir?”  Commander Erwin asked, waving an ineffectual hand at lingering wisps of smoke.

“Security concerns.”

The General drowned his cigarette butt in the dregs of the coffee cup and touched his remote.  An expanded Hubble Telescope photo appeared.  “As you can see, CASSINI did achieve orbit. It was following programmed instructions to close with Saturn’s F-ring and send back visuals of the unusual knots or densities discovered there. Contact was lost suddenly, no explanation.”

“There was this, though.” Another high-resolution image appeared.  “Photo from CASSINI.  One of the densities.  We thought it was a big rock.”

Murdoch’s eyes widened in surprise. “Damn. It’s a perfect sphere.”

“Yes, Prof.  About half a kilometer in diameter. Not ice or rock.  CASSINI’s spectrographic analysis suggested it could be metallic.”

“Hmm. Mystery metal.”

“We’re stuck. No further digital photos or spectrograph info was transmitted.”

“A malfunction?”

“Perhaps.” Shaw took a deep drag from a fresh Marlboro, suppressed a cough, then clicked his remote. “You’re the first besides me to have access to this information.”

Three more unmanned probes, the DIONE, RHEA, and TITAN had been  launched under tight security to investigate the demise of CASSINI.  All had lost downlink after reaching Saturn orbit.

“But CASSINI achieved orbit only eight years ago,” Dr. Murdoch said, disbelief creasing his brow.  “Those probes wouldn’t have had time to reach...”


4.

Shaw’s grin was cryptic. 
“Recent propulsion breakthrough. Rudimentary gravity drive developed by Professor Paula Lynch here at NASA. Speeds approaching 30,000 kilos per second.“

Commander Erwin cupped a hand to Murdoch’s ear and whispered, “Right out of Area 51, Jimmy?”

Dr. Murdoch scribbled “X-Files” on his notepad and gave her a surreptitious wink.

General Shaw’s glare impaled them, a steely, visual knife blade.  “Problem, officers?”

“No disrespect to Professor Lynch,” Commander Erwin mumbled.  “I mean, surely the media would have found a source, a leak.”

“Hmpf.  Amazing, isn’t it?  NASA finally kept a secret.”

“So we’re going to fly to Saturn,“ Professor Murdoch said.  “For a hands-on check on CASSINI?”

“You got it. And something else.”  The General opened a manila folder and spread several computer printouts on the table. “Commander Erwin, you remember Colonel Andrew Davis?  A friend of yours, I recall.”

“Andy was top of our Space Academy class, sir.  He was selected for a special intelligence operation on Mars.”

“There was no such operation.”

The Commander blinked in confusion.  “Sir?”

“Colonel Davis and Mission Specialist Diane Williams were the crew for the first manned Saturn probe.  The ISAAC ASIMOV was fitted with the prototype gravity drive.  It achieved orbit after eleven hours, fifty-one minutes of elapsed time. Our JPL guys couldn’t improve the poor quality of the transmission. This was real time. Experimental tachyon transmission.”  General Shaw loaded a chip into the VideoTrac and punched PLAY.

Columns of flight data scrolled down the screen.  The astronauts stared, astounded.  “General Shaw, I apologize for my skepticism,” Commander Erwin said in a hushed, reverent voice.

General Shaw blew a perfect smoke ring, stabbed a finger through it.  “Apology accepted.  Now comes the good stuff. Voice only, no picture.”


5.

Astrophysicist Williams’s voice was garbled
and interrupted by an annoying buzz of static:  “January 14, 2013, 1415 hours . . . Located CASSINI in orbit below F-ring . . . (Static) . . . Tried to activate computers by remote signal, but all systems unresponsive.  (Static) . . . EVA to recover data storage units.  They’ve been erased . . . (Static) . . . cause unknown, possibly hydrogen flare from Saturn atmosphere.”

“January 15, 0855 hours.  Colonel Davis on line.  We have TITAN in sight . . . (Static) . . . won’t talk to us. Diane's going EVA to attempt recovery now . . .  Christ!  Where did that come from?” A loud burst of static followed, then the background hiss of elemental particles in the cosmic abyss.


6.

“Where did what come from?”

“Unknown, Commander Erwin.  No further contact.  JPL people are still trying to reboot ASIMOV’s command computer.  No luck.  Now take a look at this.”  Another Hubble Telescope view filled the screen.  “Professor Murdoch?  Doc?”

Dr. Murdoch massaged his forehead.  “Sorry sir.  The damn static.  I’m  okay.  Saturn’s F-ring.”  He rose and tapped with a fingertip.  “And I believe this bright dot is ASIMOV.”

The picture zoomed to a grainy closeup view.  “Sure is, Prof.  See anything wrong, Commander Erwin?”

She walked to the screen for a closeup scan.  “I see no structural damage. The hull looks intact.”

“We’ve received no distress signal and no emergency beacon has been released,” the General affirmed.

“Could their COMM system have been knocked out by atmospheric flares?” Dr. Murdoch asked.

“We have an intact COMM line, Professor. If they had a serious problem they would have aborted the mission and headed for home. As you can see, they did not.”

“Can the Hubble people look at the unmanned probes?”

General Shaw gave a single shake of his head.  “They tried, but the debris field of the F-ring is between us and them. They’re still out there, status unknown.”

“Just give us a ship, sir,” Commander Erwin said.

“I knew I’d picked the right team, Commander. You’ll have the RAY BRADBURY. It’s been refitted with the Lynch gravity drive.  Your launch window is 0600 hours day after tomorrow. Report by my secure channel.”


7.

“Are we plugged in, Jimmy?”

“I’ve got the SPACECOM beacon five by five.  You’re on, Commander.”

“February 26, 2013, 1115 hours.  Commander Janice Lindsay Erwin, USN on line.  Autopilot put us in Saturn orbit as programmed.  I’ve taken manual control.  We are in geosynchronous orbit with ASIMOV below F ring.  ASIMOV’s last transmission still a puzzle. Findings bizarre.  Will need lots of help with this.  Jimmy will brief you now, General Shaw.”

“Professor James Jason  Murdoch here, sir.  Closeup scan confirms no structural damage.  EVA entry accomplished after we received no response from crew to either electronic or visual signal.  Colonel Davis and Dr. Williams are alive, repeat, alive.  They are reclining in their deceleration couches, apparently asleep.  Their biomonitors show zero brain activity and there is no response to voice or tactile stimuli. Their minds have been erased.”

“I’m downloading their bioscans to Space Corps medical branch for analysis, Prof,” General Shaw said.  “Continue, please.”

“ASIMOV’s data storage units are blank.  Recovery of CASSINI and TITAN hard drives revealed similar findings.  Have not retrieved those of RHEA and DIONE as yet.”

“JPL has received your data, Prof.  They asked about Professor  Williams’s report regarding metallic composition of F-ring knots.”

“It’s getting weird, General.  We docked with one.  Hubble was right on. It’s a sphere, half a kilometer in diameter. Our robot arm chipped off a piece of its skin for analysis in our micro-metallics lab.  It’s comprised of an alloy, part titanium and part unknown silicon-carbon based compound.  It also has a two-meter circular aperture, like a little window.  It’s an extremely hard, transparent glasslike compound.  We couldn’t break any off for analysis.”

“There’s more, sir,” Commander Erwin said.  “I authorized another EVA for Jimmy.”

“No problems, Prof?  The closed rebreathing systems in those EVA suits, the CO2 buildup . . .?”

“No headaches, sir.  And all my bioscans are in the green.”

“What have you got, Professor?”


8.

“I found an access hatch, General.  It was sealed with a magnetic device, but I was able to neutralize the locking mechanism. Inside there’s a narrow walkway between banks and banks of electronic gear, gyroscopic stabilizers, very sophisticated stuff. It seems to have something to do with navigational positioning.”

“Then there’s this little item with lots of finely ground high-resolution lenses facing the aperture.  It can only be a surveillance camera.  There’s also a hi-tech transmitter with a signal booster that, well . . . You’re not gonna believe this, General Shaw.”

“So what else is new, Prof?  Carry on.”

“You remember our COMM folks developed tachyon transmitters effective within the solar system?  Well, whoever owns this little beauty has perfected the technology.  They can collect real-time info from intergalactic distances. It’s not Earth technology, sir.”

“Understood.”

“Commander Erwin here, General. It may be just collecting scientific data from Saturn, like our probes.  We’ve still got a few things to check out. We’ve got a first-contact scenario here.  BRADBURY out.”

“Okay, Jimmy, I’m going to take us on a cruise around the F-ring.  Okay with another EVA?”

“Wouldn’t miss it, skipper.”


9.

“There are nine more satellite cameras and gyrostabilizer platforms
hidden in the F-ring, General Shaw.  They have an unusual orientation.  Equally spaced, so that each one covers one hour of rotation of the ring.  As you will recall, the ring makes a complete rotation about every ten hours, thirty-six minutes . . .”

“Continue.”

“They’re set up to video Earth, General.  Continuous monitoring.  Plus there’s a hi-tech telescopic array in each one taking star sightings.”

Shaw’s voice was low, muted, betraying disbelief. “Come on now, Professor Murdoch.  What the hell can they see from trillions of kilometers away?”

“Sir, we’ve jury-rigged a playback of their recordings through our video system.  Their images are sharper than anything our surveillance satellites can produce. This is getting pretty scary.”

“Scare me, Professor.”

“They have close-ups of worldwide population centers, military bases, the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol,” Commander Erwin said. “There’s also some voice overlay, not any known Earth language.  Jimmy’s forwarding it for translation...”

Dr. Murdoch suddenly crumpled to the deck, clutching his temples.  “Jesus, Commander.  Headache . . .”

“Jimmy!  Wait one, General.  Something’s going down.  Unknown ship, it didn’t set off our proximity alerts.  Oh, shit.  Not responding to COMM challenge.  Stand by one.  Hostile approach posture.  Jimmy’s out cold.  Got him strapped in.  We’re outta here . . .”


10.

“What the hell happened out there, Major Franklin?”
General Shaw demanded, his face an angry crimson.

“BRADBURY is off line, sir.  Sudden loss of communication.  Intact COMM line, just like with ASIMOV.  Hubble video monitors out.  Believe we’ve captured Professor Murdoch’s transmissions of alien COMM traffic.  Running through translation now.”

The aide’s face was ashen as he handed over a hardcopy.  “Translation verifies this is correct version, sir.”

“About time, Lieutenant,” General Shaw grumbled.  He tapped the face of his wristwatch with a fingertip.  “They’ve had those tapes since noon.  What was their prob?”

“You’d better read this, sir. It’s real time.”

Shaw balanced a pair of reading half-glasses on his nose and frowned.  “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just read, sir.”

“. . . First inhabited alien ship arrived.  Brain scans unsuccessful, tissue damaged beyond repair . . . (Undecipherable) . . .  Initial frequencies too high.  For second ship we modified and reduced electronic intrusion parameters . . . (Undecipherable) . . . Retrieved crucial information on status of their military readiness from female alien subject. Radar, infrared and optical surveillance devices will be blocked by our shields. Their defenses are spread too thin to mount a serious response to our laser weaponry . . .(Undecipherable) . . . First battle cruiser approaching orbit of target planet.  It will be undetectable . . .”

As General Shaw fumbled for the red-alert phone, another officer rushed in, waving sheets of hardcopy.  “A second message, sir,” he shouted in a high-pitched tremolo of disbelief.  “In the clear, from Professor Murdoch.”


11.

General Shaw pulled up a chair next to the VIP infirmary bed. 
“How’re you feeling, Professor Murdoch?” His voice was solicitous, subdued with reverent awe.

The astrophysicist gave him a tired grin.  “Better, sir.”

“Your last message. How did . . .?”

“Just lucky, General. All systems shut down minutes after I awoke.”

“And that location was so precise. How did you . . .?”

“Remember when I first entered their surveillance station?  I found a series of gyroscopes and a telescopic star sighting array.  A coordinated inertial navigation system for global positioning.  Like our nuclear submarine fleet has.  I figured they were transmitting Earth coordinates.  It was a guess, General Shaw.  I could only hope they were guiding their attack fleet to a specific point.”

“We concentrated all our laser and neutron armament at the precise spot you designated.  Right over Washington D.C.  Their flagship had to lower its shields before it could fire its weapons and we vaporized it.  The rest of ‘em about-faced and split for the galactic rim at FTL speed.  We were lucky as hell, and so were you, Doc.  You crawled into that life pod and ejected minutes before the alien surveillance station self-destructed and took the BRADBURY with it.”

Murdoch mopped his brow with a sleeve. “Whew!”

General Shaw fidgeted, patted a pocket for a cigarette. “One more question, Professor?”

“Of course, sir.”

“That mind probe.  Why didn’t it . . .?”

Dr. Murdoch tapped his temple with a fingertip.  “They got a null reading when it bounced off this titanium plate in my skull.  Decided I was either dead or too dumb to bother with.  And you know what, sir?”

“Shoot.”

He gave General Shaw a lazy smile.  “I haven’t had a headache since your guys pulled me out of that life pod.”




Story © 2004 by E.S. Strout gino_ss@earthlink.net

Illustration © 2004 by Andrew G. McCann andy@planetmag.com




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