This original science fiction story is copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2020, and is self-published on amazon.com in standard e-book format. For an improved reading experience, please download this book from Amazon. Some devices, such as Kindle, can even read the story to you. If you enjoy this science fiction novel, please share it with others. To get a sense of the story, here is the first chapter.
In the year 2139, SETI locked on to a signal, a beacon in the sky. The Arcots were saying hello from 60 light years away. We responded in kind, and soon both civilizations were transmitting their science, their music, their hopes, and their dreams. After 150 years of radio communications, the Arcots have sent something else.
‘We’re past the orbit of Neptune, and right on course,” declared Nancy, as her two crewmates sat quietly at the table, eating a reconstituted dinner. Space fare had not improved much in the past 150 years. “We should reach the probe in eight days, if all goes well.” She stood in the doorway of the small kitchen, packed floor to ceiling with consumables, waiting for some kind of acknowledgment, but none was forthcoming.
“Have some dinner,” suggested Garvin.
“All right, but only because I’m hungry.” She glanced at the top shelf, which was often ignored by her shorter crewmates, selected a shrimp pasta dinner that looked promising, and slid it into the microwave. “I think we should watch the announcement one more time.”
“Come on Nance, I mean, we’ve all seen it a dozen times.” Dan tried to complain as politely as possible, but Nancy was captain of the Explorer 29.
“I know, but we might have missed something. Besides, what else have we got to do?” She glanced at the microwave, then turned back towards her friends, blonde hair framing her face and blue eyes sparkling. They nodded, and she walked over to the display screen in the wall. Her fingers flew across the control panel, accessing the ship’s library. Soon, Wilbur’s face appeared, larger than life and as ugly as ever. His skin was pale green, and his nose jutted out like a pig’s. The central yellow eye, just above the snout, seemed to stare directly at them, while the smaller eyes, just above the cheekbones, rolled forward in their sockets, as if he were viewing the humans from all angles. His chin moved up and down in jerky motions, accompanied by guttural sounds. Only Dan spoke fluent Arcotian, so subtitles ran across the bottom of the screen. Nancy clicked the Pause icon and laughed. “I’m sure you’d rather hear an English voice.”
“Yes,” the men replied in unison.
She restarted the broadcast, took her dinner out of the microwave, and joined her friends at the table.
“Greetings, people of Earth. My name is Wilbur, and I am president of the people of Arcot.”
Somebody had given him the nickname ‘Wilbur’ long ago. His name had no English analog. Dan was well aware of this, along with other translational approximations. The word “president” was only a guess, and Arcot was assumed to be the entire planet, rather than a power that dominated the planet, but nobody knew for sure.
“He’s still ugly,” commented Garvin.
“Hush,” commanded Nancy. “The Arcots think we’re ugly too. They’ve made that plain enough.”
Wilbur continued speaking, a century after the fact. “We appreciate your radio communications, especially the recent transmissions of Bach’s music.” At this point his face seemed to soften, as though such beauty could not be denied anywhere in the galaxy. He cleared his throat and resumed. “However, we feel, and I think you’ll agree, that radio communications between two civilizations 60 light-years apart is, well, unsatisfying. There is certainly no conversation, no dialog, and we can’t experience each other in the flesh. We have not told you this before, but we have the technology to overcome these limitations. We have found a way to build and maintain narrow wormholes, using black holes to hold the ends open. We will send one of these portals to you, and leave the other in orbit around our home planet. Of course, your portal must travel by conventional rocket, so you’re going to have to be patient. But when it arrives, the worm hole will instantly ferry objects, or even people, from your planet to ours and back again. You can visit our world, and we can visit yours.”
Nancy pressed Pause on her remote. “Dan, what do you make of that smile?” Wilbur’s teeth were showing, upper and lower grinders, commensurate with a vegetarian diet. The central eye didn’t sparkle with friendship, it seemed to glare, cold and formidable.
Dan had seen the tape many times, but never analyzed it frame by frame. Nancy was thorough and cautious – that’s why she was in command. “I can only guess … I don’t think there’s anything good about that smile.”
“Hatred? Anger? Deception? Greed? What do you think is going on in his head?”
Dan put his tray in the disposal unit and placed his silverware in the dishwasher, then returned to the table. “He’s hiding something. That’s all I can say for sure. We just don’t have any experience with these people. A century and a half of transmissions, and we still don’t understand them.”
“And that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” She ate another shrimp and looked across the table at her friends. They were both shorter than her by a good 20 centimeters, though you wouldn’t notice when they were seated. Dan was skinny, with black hair and dark eyes. In contrast, Garvin was muscular, and could probably carry Dan on one arm and Nancy on the other in the low gravity of the ship.
“Problem?” Garvin asked, chewing slowly, but Dan knew what she was talking about, and let her continue.
“For 150 years we’ve been giving them our best. Our stories, our music, our movies, our culture, our mathematics, our technology. They know everything there is to know about us. Naturally, we expected them to reciprocate. We had to wait 120 years for the reply – 60 years there and 60 years back at light speed. Well, they sent us some rather strange music, and an interesting and unexpected proof of the Riemann hypothesis, but nothing of real value. How does their biology work? We don’t know. How do they handle black holes, and build interstellar tunnels? We don’t know. They give us little bits here and there, but nothing substantial. For 150 years, it’s been a one-way conversation. With what we’ve sent them, they could design a virus that could kill us all. They have our genome, and the biochemistry that makes it tick. We sent them everything, only to find that they’re keeping their cards close to their chest. Why?”
“I can’t answer that,” said Dan quietly. “They might just be a grumpy race.”
“Perhaps.” She pressed the Resume button.
“The black hole that lies at the heart of our portal has the mass of a mountain. That’s all we can handle with our technology. To you that seems impressive, but it is only strong enough to maintain a tunnel two meters wide. Well, that’s wide enough for a person in a space suit. One of your emissaries can come visit us, and we can send an ambassador to you. We can exchange samples of flora and fauna for scientific analysis. Best of all, we can send light beams through the tunnel, and have instant communication. We won’t have to wait 120 years for a reply.”
Garvin tapped Nancy on the arm – her cue to hit Pause. He liked touching her on the arm. In fact, he wanted to do more than that, but so far he hadn’t approached her about it. After a somewhat parochial start, NASA finally admitted that well-adjusted, physically fit young men and women, trapped together in a tin can for months or years, were bound to have sexual relations – and why not? The worst case scenario was a tubal pregnancy, and astronauts were certainly smart enough to take precautions.
Garvin emerged from his fantasy and tried to remember what he was going to say. Let’s see … Wilbur, the announcement, black holes … oh yes.
“Have you noticed that Wilbur is telling us exactly what we want to hear, based on the information he has at hand? Before we had the unified field theory, people use to speculate about tunnels held open by black holes at either end. At the time the Arcots were discovered, that was the theme, from peer-reviewed research to science fiction, and that’s what we transmitted to them. Now we know that that’s impossible. At least, we’re pretty sure it’s impossible. Are we wrong? Have they discovered physics we can’t even imagine? Or are they parroting the science of our ancestors, to make us believe in such a portal?”
“I’m guessing the latter,” replied Nancy after a moment’s thought. “But remember, they do possess technology we can only dream of. Their probe is entering our solar system now, from 60 light years away, and we certainly can’t reciprocate. So I’m trying to keep an open mind. But I see what you’re saying.”
As if on cue, Wilbur went on to describe the superiority of his civilization. He wasn’t gloating, simply stating a fact. “Although the portal will be coming to you on a conventional spacecraft, it is still well beyond your technology. We have found a way to push against the surrounding stars – against the fabric of space-time itself, the way a car might push against the road. We don’t have to carry propellant, or the extra fuel needed to accelerate that propellant, or the extra propellant needed to push that propellant along, and so on. As we approach your star, and it’s time to decelerate, we’ll push in the opposite direction, like a car in reverse. As you can see, our technology is quite advanced.” Arcot faces were always difficult to interpret, but Wilbur’s expression seemed almost smug. He paused as his smile broadened just a bit, then continued. “Still, sending a macroscopic black hole across the galaxy strains the limits of our resources. Using antimatter as an energy source, we will accelerate your portal to eighty percent of the speed of light. After a long coasting phase, it’ll decelerate, analyze the gas giants around your star, calculate an appropriate series of gravity assists, change course accordingly, and come to rest at the fifth Lagrange point of your Earth-Moon system, in orbit around Earth, and 60 degrees behind the Moon. We look forward to visiting you in person.” The tape ended.
“Any other concerns, discrepancies, thoughts?” asked Nancy as she raised a fork full of noodles to her lips.
“You’re really looking for problems, aren’t you?” commented Dan.
“Our orders are to intercept the probe, study it, and if it proves to be a threat to the Earth – a Trojan horse – neutralize it. If the Arcots are planning to invade Earth, or spread a virus, or anything nefarious, we’re the first line of defense, and probably the last. The government spent the last 15 years retrofitting this ship for battle, just in case. And you’ve been carefully selected for this mission, even though you’ve never flown before. Dan, you’re fluent in a dozen languages, including Arcotian, whose grammar is, as I understand it, unlike any language on Earth. And Garvin, you’re an engineer and an Olympic athlete, a rare combination! The triathlon, wasn’t it? A bronze medal?”
“You both trained hard for this mission. NASA has every confidence in you. So do I.”
The men quietly accepted her compliment as they finished their dinner.
“You asked about additional concerns,” Garvin began. “Do you know about the evaporation paradox?”
“A black hole that weighs as much as a mountain is tiny, on the cosmic scale. These things usually are measured in solar masses. The smaller the black hole, the more Hawking radiation it emits. You couldn’t get near such a thing. Even hardened computers would crash.”
“They may have shielding that’s beyond our comprehension,” offered Dan.
“Right, but the black hole still evaporates. That’s physics, and they can’t change that. Within ten years, maybe 50 if we’re talking about a really big mountain, the black hole is gone. Yet it will take the portal 80 years to travel here. You see the problem.”
“That’s 80 years our time. What about ship time?”
Garvin admired Nancy; she knew a lot about a lot of things, and she never missed a detail. Perhaps she didn’t grasp the quantum nuances of gravity, but she certainly had a handle on special relativity. “Yes, we thought about that, but the probe attains only eighty percent of light speed, give or take. That cuts the ship time in half, but the black hole would still disappear before it reached Earth.”
“I’m surprised I wasn’t briefed on this.” She paused. “Perhaps they’re using a piece of a neutron star or white dwarf.”
Garvin stroked his chin, then spoke slowly. “I don’t think so. Again, these theories are generally not accepted any more, but at the dawn of the space age, people believed that a space-time singularity was necessary if you wanted to build a portal. Aggregates of normal matter, no matter how dense, wouldn’t cut it.”
“Wilbur said ‘black hole’ specifically, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” Dan replied. “That’s an accurate translation.”
The three sat for several minutes in silence. There wasn’t much else to say. Finally, Nancy stood up.
“Obviously, we lack information. We’ll find out more when we reach the probe. Now,” she checked the clock on the wall, “we’ve got about four more hours of powered flight, then we coast for a week. At the top of our arc, we’ll turn around and fly hard, 1.5 G’s, back towards the sun, to match the probe’s downward velocity. Then we’ll try to go into orbit around the probe – it might have enough mass. We’ll never learn what we need to know from a simple fly-by, not with all the questions we have.”
“Right, that’s the flight plan,” Garvin stated.
“Yes, but you two have never tried to function in zero G for a week. Oh, it’s fun for the first day or so, but then it’s a drag. Among other annoyances, there’s no open water, so each of us should take a shower while we still can. I’ll go first.”
Nancy left her clothes in her cabin and walked naked through the lounge and into the shower. Garvin pretended not to notice as she passed, but his eyes followed her like a magnet. She was a figure of strength, authority, and beauty. Nancy stepped into the stall and closed the door, which was translucent at best. Garvin forced his focus back to the movie on the far wall, but he managed to keep her in view out of the corner of his left eye.
Nancy set the switch to Recycle and activated the shower. Warm water fell through her hair and cascaded down her back and arms. It felt wonderful. Below the floor, a pump collected the water and sent it back up through the shower head: water was far to precious to waste. She stood for a long time, letting the warmth relax her muscles. Finally, she stepped out of the stream, opened the compartment in the wall, took out a bottle of shampoo and a bar of soap, and started to lather up. When she had washed completely, including her hair, she switched the shower to Drain and stepped back into the stream. The water, with its entrained impurities, would be processed by the on-board treatment plant. Most of it could be used again, but the soap/oil concentrate would have to be jettisoned. Well – five percent of a few liters of rinse water was a small price to pay for a shower. Besides, the ship had lots of consumables on board, enough for three years if necessary. She switched the shower back to Recycle and called out to Garvin. “Shall I leave it on for you?” She knew he was watching, and she didn’t really mind.
“Sure,” he replied. Nancy emerged, clad only in a towel, while Garvin went into his cabin looking for a razor. The electric unit irritated his skin, and that’s the preferred method in zero gravity, so he wanted to get one last close shave with a blade. As he fumbled about in his room, Nancy’s attention was drawn to the big screen.
She decided to watch, just for a few minutes. The Info button answered her immediate questions: Flight of the Phoenix, starring Jimmy Stewart. Garvin liked the old flicks, and when it was his turn to choose, you could be sure he’d dredge something out of the depths of the ship’s archive. Stars with short, catchy names like ‘Cary Grant’ or ‘John Wayne’, and others nobody heard of. This movie featured an old-style plane somewhere out in the desert. It looked interesting, so she pulled the lever on the recliner and leaned back, her feet elevated.
“Should we wake her?” Dan asked, still dripping from his shower. “We’re going to lose gravity in half an hour.”
“She told us to sleep, or at least rest quietly, for the first few hours of zero G,” Garvin replied. “That’s the best way to avoid space sickness. Looks like she’s taking her own advice.”
“She isn’t tethered. She’ll float around the lounge.”
Garvin paused, picturing his floating commander with nothing but a towel. “Well, maybe she’ll stay in place. The engines shut down gradually, so perhaps she’ll be all right. Besides, she hasn’t slept well the past couple nights – I’m not going to wake her.” He turned towards his cabin. “I’m heading for bed. It’s late, and I’m going to take her advice. Don’t want to be the rookie who throws up – not on this flight!”
Each cabin had a large round window for star gazing, just above the bed. Garvin kept one eye on the constellations as he strapped his sheets to the bed frame. He didn’t want to wake up in the engine room. “Sleep-floating”, they called it, and it was pretty funny, as long as it happened to somebody else. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he muttered, glancing at the cadres of objects on his bedside table: pictures of his wife Mandy and his daughters April and Sharon, some geometric puzzles, a small flute, a big box of Andes chocolates that he tried hard not to devour in one sitting. He gathered them up, kissed Mandy in effigy, stowed them in a cupboard, and latched the door carefully. He took off his robe, placed it in a drawer under his bed, and slipped between the sheets. As if on cue, the engines throttled back to zero, leaving the crew weightless in space. Garvin wanted to fly through the ship and experience the pleasures of zero gravity, but that would come soon enough. Following his commander’s advice, he remained motionless in his bed and dozed fitfully.
Nancy was back on the Santiago, exploring the Kuiper Belt and gathering samples of primordial comets for analysis. A large Kuiper Belt object hung suspended outside her bedroom window, with patches of white, gray, and black, consistent with its popular description as a “dirty snowball”. They had removed several kilograms of material from the object’s surface, and tomorrow they would extract a core sample some 20 meters deep. It would be a busy day, and she really should get some sleep, but she enjoyed talking with Carol, the mission specialist, who seemed to be an expert in just about everything. She had never touched a woman before, but it had been seven months out in space, and the two men on board were immersed in math and science, and games of Go, and music – with no apparent need for physical contact. So Nancy found, as so many had before her, that her wants and desires were surprisingly malleable. Besides, Carol’s personality would be attractive in any package. Nancy didn’t resist as Carol stroked her hair. Would it stop there, or would they release their passions, floating about in zero gravity? She wasn’t frightened at the prospect; it was simply something new – and if either of them were uncomfortable with the situation, they would stop and wait for another day. Nancy closed her eyes, as if to say “You’re in charge. You decide.”
Nancy had no family, and no partner; she was essentially married to NASA, so she found companionship and affection wherever she could. Carol was the only woman she’d ever loved, and honestly, it didn’t feel that different.
She awoke with a start and found herself floating naked in Garvin’s cabin, his hand running through her light blonde hair, as Carol had done 11 years ago. Her abandoned towel drifted down the hall, propelled by the gentle currents that kept CO2 from accumulating.
“I’m sorry,” said Garvin, pulling his hand away. “You came in here sound asleep, and I was trying to wake you.”
“Well, I didn’t plan to float in here, but it’s okay.” She smiled and pulled his hand back towards her.
“I know you didn’t plan it, but if you like, I can close the door and we could …” He wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence.
“You know I’d like that … but I can’t.” Garvin tried to hide his disappointment. “This isn’t an exploratory mission. This is first contact with another civilization, one far more advanced than our own. We don’t know what to expect. I may have to issue an order that places you, or Dan, in grave danger, and you will have to follow that order. We can’t afford … I mean … the stakes are just too high.”
“You’re right, of course.” Garvin caressed her arm gently, then pulled his hand back again.
Nancy took one last look at his muscular arms and powerful chest. “When this mission is over, and we’re headed back home, I’ll float back into your cabin, and this time it won’t be by accident.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Nancy placed a foot against Garvin’s bed and pushed off with practiced ease, sailing through the door, across the hall, and into her own room. She was as comfortable in zero gravity as a fish in water. Unfortunately, she hadn’t had time to stow her personal belongings, which were now hovering over her bed. “Oh hell, I’ll worry about that tomorrow.” She closed the door, prepared her bed for zero G, crawled inside, and fell asleep.
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