“Contact” – more from the sci-fi short, “The Duel” (~2900 words)

Read the introduction to “The Duel” here.

Contact

Cyril arrived to replace Jennifer two hours after lockdown. Joe moved to the navigator’s seat, and Jen replaced him at the sensor station. Mac and Mike were still in the back of Tellus, monitoring the two nuclear reactors providing power to the ship.

“Daedalus, we’re T-minus nineteen minutes. 0641:11 marked.”

Mac and Mike made their way up to the command module. Mike strapped into the engineering station, Mac sealed the hatch behind them and grabbed one of the crew seats.

“Alright, we’re sealed off. For what it’s worth. It isn’t like abandoning ship is going to save us this far out.”

“Okay, I’m turning the camera back on. Let’s keep it upbeat for the kids, Mac.”

“Just kidding around, Belle, we’ve got a solid ship here.”

“Thank you, Aaron – your vote of confidence in my design means the world to me.” Joe deadpanned.

Isabelle reached up and turned her camera on. Throughout the pre-maneuver phase she recorded messages and explanations for the kids in her daughter’s class. Now it was time for the big finish.

“Hey kids, we’re now a few minutes away from the maneuver. So, I thought I’d tell you what is going to happen. First of all, Tellus uses a new type of engine called a ‘mass driver’. It is one of the reasons why the ship is so long – the mass driver is a series of magnets running down a tunnel through the core of the ship. The magnets are powered by two small nuclear reactors. When we fire the engine, we have both the reactors running on full power. The rest of the time we slow them down as we don’t need all that excess power going into our batteries.

“So, we take these magnets and use them to shoot out tiny amounts of liquid metal – like firing a gun. Because there isn’t much in space for our ship to brace itself against, the ship moves away from the shot fired. We do this thousands of times a minute to accelerate to our top speed – which is over a half million kilometers per hour. It takes us five hours to reach top speed – but the ship could do it in thirty minutes if there wasn’t a crew on board.”

Isabelle strained her neck to look over her shoulder, “Joe, do you have anything to add?”

Joe looked up at the camera, “Yes, Commander. One of the differences between our mass driver engine and others is we can turn the liquid metal into plasma. Basically, we set it on fire like a regular rocket. This gives us two types of thrust: kinetic – the normal force we get from firing the mass driver, and chemical – the added boost of plasma – or fire – like a rocket has. By burning up the metal, we lose much of the long-term speed we can get from the mass driver, but we gain a short burst like an afterburner on a jet. This is good for slowing down, which is what we will be doing now. Oh, and credit for this design goes to Dr. Anderson, who invented the DSV-patented liquid metal alloy we use.”

“But, before we can do that, we have to swing the ship around so the engine is facing the opposite direction.”

Isabelle checked the timer. Two minutes until the turn. Joe and Jen, with the help of Cyril, recalculated the turn maneuver to take into account the drift. No use in fighting the momentum generated by shutting down the ring when they could use it to their advantage. The shift in movement meant the maneuver would start a few seconds later than originally planned, and end a few seconds earlier.

“Commander, I’m picking up a spike on the EM bands.”

“What kind of spike, Jen?”

“I’m not sure. It’s faint, but probably metallic.”

“A rogue metallic asteroid from the belt?” Joe offered.

Jen hummed to herself.

“I don’t think so. I would expect a different range on a metallic asteroid. This band is something I would expect with complex alloys.”

“It isn’t unheard of for complex alloys to form in asteroids.” Mike commented.

“True.”

“Does it change anything for us? We have two minutes. I need to know now.”

“I don’t see how. Whatever it is is either really small or still some distance out. But it is in our projected flight path.”

“Okay, keep an eye on it. Let’s get ready.”

Cyril flipped a switch on his console, “Burn and turn in one minute.”

“Daedalus, signal break T minus forty-five seconds. We’ll see you again at the end of the turn.”

“Closing the screens.” Mac announced. Radiation shields lowered over the small view ports. When the turn completed, the command module would face the sun. The added protection against stray solar radiation was a matter of prudence.

“Burn in three…two…one…firing lateral thrusters.”

There was no sense of motion. Nothing to indicate a change, save the computer reporting the thrusters fired. After the required time elapsed, the thrusters fired in the opposite direction. The ship’s inertia carried it gently until it faced the new heading.

“We’re locked in, right on target.” Cyril’s grin was evident in his voice.

“Good work. Let’s get reconnected with Daedalus and prime the mass driver.”

“That spike is more pronounced, Belle.”

Isabelle frowned and turned off the camera.

“How so? I thought it was small?”

“It was. But it’s bigger now. Much stronger signal.”

“Okay, try to match the analysis with known phenomenon.”

“Already on it, Belle. The computer has nothing. Closest match is titanium, but it isn’t quite there. Once we get locked in I can run a full radio telescope and spectrometer package on it.”

Isabelle opened the sensor package window on her command screen. A natural source of titanium in or near the belt would be of interest to DSV.

“High-gain and low-gain are both repositioned, Commander. Nineteen minutes to confirmation.”

Isabelle mumbled an affirmative response. Her concentration was on the spectrometer readings on her screen. They were growing in strength, and didn’t make much sense.

“Jen, this spike is getting stronger, and it’s changing. I don’t think that’s close to titanium anymore. Can you recheck it?”

“Changing?” Joe asked, the word trailing off.

“Yeah. Take a look.”

“Fuel primed for the engines.” Mike intoned.

“Mmhmm,” Isabelle replied, “look at that, Jen, what is it?”

“I don’t know, Belle, and neither does the computer. Now it doesn’t pull up a single match.”

“Could radiation be distorting the readings?”

“It could be, Joe. If that’s the case then we need to make sure the shields are ready to go.”

“Can we burn the shields at the same time we are firing the engines?” Mac asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike answered, “I don’t see why not.”

“I’m just wondering about power consumption. If we have to run the shields at max, will we be pulling too much from the batteries?”

“Shit. I don’t know. Let me pull it up. Cy, didn’t we run this scenario in sim?”

“We didn’t, but the team did. It’s there somewhere. I think we have a limited window.”

“Belle, I’m bringing the REFAR online and pointing it at this thing. If this is energetic, we need to know what we are dealing with here.”

“Agreed, Joe. Lilly, how long until we re-establish contact?”

“Fifteen minutes.”

“I don’t think we have that long.”

“What? Why, Cy?”

“I think this thing is coming at us. That’s why the signal is getting stronger.”

Silence descended over the command module. Isabelle looked at Cyril, and he looked back.

“Christ. Joe,” she said, the words draining from her mouth, “can you confirm that?”

“Yeah…maybe. Um, I need the entire sensor package online. LIDAR, RADAR, EM, IR, the works. Jen?”

“Right…uh, I’m on it, Joe. The REFAR is up already. Pointing it at the source.”

The REFAR was Tellus’s radio telescope. Designed to pick up electromagnetic emissions ranging from the lowest frequencies into the hypersonic range, it was also useful for detecting harmful radiation.

“Okay, I’m zeroing in on the source now. Jesus, there is a lot of static here. This thing is glowing. And close. Really fucking close.”

“Define ‘close’.”

“Getting a response this quickly? Half a million kilometers, no more. And, if it is that far, to get readings this strong means…well, it’s putting off more energy than both our reactors.”

“We’re talking about something…natural…here, right?” James weighed in for the first time.

“Doc, I can’t think of anything known to man, in that asteroid belt, that could do what we are seeing here.”

“So…if it isn’t natural…what is it?”

Another silence settled over the cabin.

“Is anyone going to say it?” Mac snapped.

Cyril cleared his throat.

“Fine. I’ll say it – if it isn’t something natural, then it’s man-made. But we know there shouldn’t be anything made by humans around us.”

“We don’t know that, Mac. Someone could have…” Mike interjected.

“Could have what? Secretly made a ship and sent it out ahead of us? Bullshit. We know what is supposed to be out here – all small, unmanned, probes. The last manned mission came home with everything intact.”

“Enough speculation,” Joe snapped, “we are still being recorded. Let’s not look like scared idiots on the DSV video.”

“I am scared.”

“You’re not alone, Lilly,” Jen consoled.

“No. You’re not.” James agreed.

Isabelle exhaled slowly. She needed to get the crew under control and focused on whatever it was out there. They still had the maneuver to execute, and a small window of time to do it.

“Alright, kids, we need to cut out the useless chatter and focus on the mission. Jen, Joe, give me everything you can on that thing. Lilly, I want two-way with Daedalus as soon as possible. Cy, for the time being I’m going to have to ask you to run the burn math by yourself. Mike and Mac – help him any way you can. Right now I want you three assuming we’re going for burn on schedule.”

“LIDAR is pinging something solid and moving closer.”

“Distance?”

Joe cursed under his breath.

“Joe? Distance to the…object?”

“Four hundred thousand and closing.”

Isabelle heard a hitch in Joe’s voice, “And what else?”

“And closing velocity is one point four million kph.”

“Fuck me.” Cyril gasped.

“Are you telling me it’s going faster than we are?”

“By at least two hundred thousand kph.”

“Okay, that tears it. Whatever this thing is, it isn’t made by humans. We’ve got nothing that will go that fucking fast.” Mac’s voice raised several octaves.

“Not true, Mac,” Mike murmured, “Tellus could theoretically do that. Given enough run-up.”

“So either this thing has been accelerating, in a nearly perfect opposing trajectory, for a few months – and using our engine, of which only one exists – or it ain’t human.”

“Enough!” Isabelle snapped, “Enough speculating. Joe, is it going to come close to us?”

“Close?” Joe laughed a short, barking facsimile of mirth, “Right now it looks like it is dead-on to hit us in about sixteen minutes. And, even if it misses, it’s glowing like a damned star.”

“Cy?”

“We burn now. Hard burn.”

“The g-forces won’t be pleasant.” James warned.

“We have emergency burn limit for a reason. We strap in tight, and push the limit.”

“I’m already on it,” Mike announced, staring at his screen, “we can push one-hundred percent for up to five minutes and come out okay.”

“What is okay?”

“We probably won’t pass out.”

“That leaves a lot of other stuff that can happen.”

“Look,” Joe growled, “right now we have to slow down and hope this thing can’t adjust trajectory – and we have to do it with enough time to put everything we can into the shield after the burn. If we don’t, we’re cooked or spaced, pick your poison.”

Isabelle pulled up the same file Mike was referencing. Simulations and studies on emergency situations done by DSV. Without something to counteract the forces applied to their bodies from sudden acceleration or deceleration, the stresses of firing the mass driver engine could injure or even kill the occupants of Tellus.

At “full burn”, where the mass driver runs at full power and the fuel is ignited, the Tellus would decelerate at eighty-eight meters per second, squared – putting the equivalent of nine to twelve gs of force on its occupants. The five minute limit placed on the burn was for the safety of the crew – in theory, the crew wouldn’t pass out before five minutes. G-force affected everyone differently, however, and Isabelle expected at least some of the crew to pass out – namely those not as extensively experienced as Isabelle or Cyril.

“Joe, how long do we need to push the burn?”

“As long as possible, Belle. I don’t like the amount of sensor noise I’m getting from this thing. The more distance we have from it, the less radiation we get. We’ll still have to fly through its wake – but the longer it takes for us to get to it, the more the particles will dissipate.”

“We got eleven minutes, Commander, Doctor – I need an answer. Emergency burn or no?” Cyril snapped out.

Isabelle bit her lip and looked over at her pilot. He nodded.

“Joe?”

“Do it, Belle.”

“Alright. Everyone, lock your chairs. Mike, Mac, open the governor on the batteries. Cyril, get the program loaded.”

“Already loaded, Commander. Just waiting on word from the engineers.”

“Governors opened. The capacitors will be full in about two minutes.”

Isabelle stared at her screen. On one window she had the sensor readings of the object, on the other was the status of the engine. The sensor readings continued to increase at an alarming rate, while the engine’s capacitors filled at an infuriating snail’s pace.

“Nine minutes to intercept.”

“Thirty seconds to burn.”

“Capacitors at ninety-eight percent.”

“Five minute, emergency burn program loaded. Sit back and enjoy the ride. Ten seconds.”

“Capacitors full.”

“Five seconds.”

“Three…two…”

Isabelle closed her eyes and gripped the harness in both hands. She experienced six gs in simulation before, but never nine or more. The sudden power of the engine firing crushed her into the back of her seat. Intense pressure pushed down on her chest. She gasped for breath. Painful spots of light flashed against her eyelids.

“Yeaahhhhh…” Mac’s cry trailed off with a pained gurgle. In another time, Isabelle would have laughed at his body failing to meet the expectations of his bravado. But she wasn’t sure if she could laugh – getting air back up through her throat was impossible. A lump formed in the back of her throat, a deep throbbing pressure crushing her windpipe and firing panicked thoughts through her mind.

Get a hold of yourself, Belle, you trained for this.

“F…four minutes.” Cyril grunted.

The spots of light exploded into a kaleidoscope of color. A low roar filled her ears. She fell into a tunnel of rushing light and sound.

“Three…three…”

Was Cyril keeping his eyes open to read the screen? Well, he did have more experience in high-gs than any of them. He was a fighter pilot before he joined NASA and then DSV. Isabelle tried to open her eyes to look at him but they remained firmly shut and pressed against the back of her skull.

She managed to force an exhale out and squeeze her eyes open. Her head was pressed sideways against the headrest, facing Cy. He did indeed have his eyes lidded, staring at the screen in front of him. Her own vision flashed and blurred – she couldn’t read the screen.

The five-point lock for Cy’s harness reflected the blue light of the computer screen. Underneath it, Cy’s arms crossed. The reflection glowed and everything around it darkened. She was falling and flying again, this time into a tunnel of light formed by the lock.

“Two.”

Two more minutes. Two more. Two more minutes. One, two, buckle my shoe. Three four…A staccato bass beat, far off, kept time.

“Belle? You up?”

Her vision was blurry. Doctor Malcolm’s face floated between her and Cyril. The bass beat was louder.

“What? Where?”

“You passed out. So did everyone but me and Cy. The burn is over.”

“Who? What burn?”

“Relax, it’ll come back. Here, take an aspirin now. You’ll need it in a minute.”

She watched a hand accept the small packet from James. Another joined it and fumbled, fingers too large and inarticulate trying to open the medicine.

“Here.”

James broke the seal for her and held the small straw to her lips. She sucked in the liquid aspirin.

“Why do I need this?”

“Any second now, you’ll know.” The voice wasn’t James’s and it seemed to float behind him.

“Cyril?”

“Yeah, I’m here. You got a rager of a headache coming. We all do.”

The staccato beat grew in volume and filled her head. Somewhere, somehow, a part of her mind recognized it as her own heartbeat. With the realization came stabs of pain and flashes of light in her eyes.

“Oh, Jesus Christ.”

“There it is.” Cyril chuckled.

Everything came back in a rush. The object, the emergency burn, everything.

“Where are we? Is Joe awake? Are we a safe distance away? What is the status on the shield?”

“Joe is up, so is Mike. Mike’s getting ready to shunt power to the shield. Joe?”

“I’m still running the numbers. Give me a minute. Damn, my head hurts.”

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