Friday, April 17, 2020

View of Old Williamsburg

What looks like a blurred photo is actually a painting scanned through the framing glass. For one thing, it looks practically impossible to remove; that gives it an inadvertently dreamy quality. The original was another magazine photo, to which I added details like the barn in the distance. What drew me to this scene was the effect of all the shadows on snow made gold by late afternoon sun. Fallen leaves and sticks complete the project.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Zero Option (conclusion)

Moast attached a plate-size comm link to the towering alien structure, the only one on the former gas giant. Decoding its records was worth the risk of another probe attack. Still, he'd taken certain precautions for a quick getaway after the earlier fight.

Distant light from the Pistol star glinted on Harker's visor. "What do we have so far, Kyra? I'm getting a little antsy."

First Officer Preston's voice was tinny in their helms. "The inhabitants couldn't stop the solar wind from stripping off the atmosphere. They used the Builder gateway to access a chain of stepping stones to the Large Magellanic Cloud." This was a cluster of dwarf galaxies 179,000 light years from Earth.

"Why not elsewhere in our their own galaxy?" Harker inquired. "We've got no shortage of gas giants."

"I think," Moast decided, "they had actual contact with the Builders. Later generations wanted to find the Builder home world, and the Magellanic Clouds are the first step on the journey."

"How do you explain these attack drones?" Harker demanded.

"Probably just guardians of the old homestead, in case they ever wanted to come back and lay a wreath."

Suddenly, a stream of incandescent balls came down to hit the far horizon. White flares erupted into a shower of burning chunks hurled out into space. Orchidia's chain guns were targeting hatches identified as egress points for the probes.

"Better get back  now, Commander. Multiple contacts beneath the surface. Counting eleven in process of launch."

The last probe they'd tangled with had blasted a section of reactive armor. Eleven of them would be like inch worms on an elm tree, leaving nothing behind. Both men sprinted to the fork-tailed shuttle.

"Prepare for hyper jump," Moast ordered. "We won't waste time docking. Jump as soon as we're inside the ship's eventuality field. And power up the pulse gun."

Harker pulled off his helm once inside the shuttle. "You're using a sledge hammer on gnats? We don't have time for that."

"Diversionary tactic." Moast punched the craft to top speed. He came up beneath the broad wings, noted with approval how Kyra had the belly docking hatch closed.

As planned, they jumped behind the enemy force, to the pulse gun's maximum range. From the ship's nose lanced a twined blue beam that distorted nearby space and rocked the shuttle. The planetary impact area bloomed red, yellow, then white in a hellish storm of molten debris.

"The core is unexpectedly dense, Commander. Multiples converging. We're rotating to keep the exposed wing section from them." 

"Maintain fire," Moast said.

Two disintegrator beams hit the ship, going right through the energy screens, but the protective armor jettisoned. The chain reaction burned itself out harmlessly. But if an exposed area was hit. . . .

Sections of the planet split, spilling light. Orchidia's chain guns and plasma rifles criss-crossed the battle zone, scoring a single kill of the nimble probes.

"Jump now!" Moast shouted.  This one brought them close to the Builder portal and home. Far behind, a momentary wink signaled the planet core's explosion.

Harker rounder on him. "Dammit, Moast--there goes our last chance at hooking one of those probes!"

Since Moast had received a private message from the AI--something she'd found on Harker's pad--he didn't sweat the man's bluster. "Well, they shouldn't have scratched up my ship." He grinned. Harker grew suspicious enough not to continue the fight.

Back on the bridge again, Moast watched the yawning hatch as the Builder portal prepared to take them inside for the return to Pluto Station. "Harker, I recommend not trying to have the AI replaced."

"And why is that?"

"A little birdie tells me you retired from command of the battleship Suru prematurely. You were promised command of its new sister ship Orchidia. But then the Orchidia was scaled down to midsize. Your ego would never allow commanding a smaller ship. Its just sour grapes."

Harker bristled. "How could you possibly know. . . ."

The AI materialized next to Kyra, a blank faced pixie with red eyes and blue skin.

"Well played," Harker conceded. It even had a touch of grudging admiration.

Monday, April 13, 2020

The Zero Option (2)

Filters came on line as soon as Orchidia sailed out of the Builder portal in the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. The Pistol Nebula reflected brilliant light from its resident hypergiant, the Pistol star.

"Tactical," Commander Moast ordered.

"No sign of the probe's destroyer," said First Officer Preston. "Scanning coordinates of Icarus star from its last transmission. They lead to a dead planetary body, probably a gas giant stripped of atmosphere by intense solar wind."

"Analysis." Moast swiveled toward the helm, manned by navigator Chet and helmsman Berl.

Chet's bearded face glowed blue over his readout. "The star is Wolf-Rayet class. Velocity: 130 kilometers per second. Brightness is ten million times solar. Surface temp: 21,400 Kelvin." That was about four times the sun's heat. "One hundred five times solar mass. Stellar ejection rate: ten billion times solar."

That brought a curse of appreciation from Trenn Harker, the Consortium rep bent on turning a profit. "This isn't a place for a vacation or starting a colony." His look soured when he addressed the AI. "What do you think about that, Computer?"

"Propagation of microquasar jets creates recollimation shock. Nebula gasses convert kinetic energy to heat."

"So it's a little too warm," Harker surmised. "Nav puts us only a hundred light years from galactic center. We could be the first to go there, maybe verify that rumored supermassive black hole."

"This requires seventy-six hyper jumps. Fuel drain is not acceptable."

Harker started to object, but Berl responded to the sudden alarm tone. "We've got an inbound from that dead body, coming in at high warp."

The intruder was impossibly fast. When close enough, it fired a plasma beam that struck the ship's port wing. An explosive-reactive panel ejected, rapidly eaten up by the charge, which would have consumed the entire ship. Suddenly the ship made a short hyper jump. In its previous spot, a white shock wave blossomed. The intruder managed to avoid it, but immense tidal forces bent its course so sharply that it flew apart.

Harker swore again. "That was a black hole bomb. . . .left behind when we jumped."

"A perfect example," Moast said. "The AI reacts a lot faster than we do. Orchidia, damage report."

"Five point eight percent of the port wing is now unshielded. I am directing servobots to install replacement panels. The impact damaged ejector coolant pump six. Repairs are in progress."

Harker strode toward the main viewer. "We can make good use of that wreckage. It might be Builder technology."

"Negative. Its magnatronic core is still intact. It could be detonated once aboard ship." 

"Agreed," Moast said, heading off Harker's retort as to just who was in command. "Set course for the dead planet."

It was Kyra Preston's turn for concern. "We could be attacked again--en masse."

"Doubtful." Moast had a captive audience. "Why didn't the attacker destroy the portal if it doesn't want anyone out here? If it isn't Builder, it certainly respects their property. I think the sting of what happened has them pondering and guessing."

"If that's true," Harker insisted, "then we'd better make a good impression. What would the Builders make of you? Are you just along for the ride?" He left the bridge, as planet-fall wouldn't be for several hours.

Kyra leaned an arm on Moast's chair. "He seems dead set on recommending replacement of the AI. You know--considering the zero option--I'm not sure I'm willing to sacrifice my career."

"It's not a good outcome," Moast said. "We'd have to destroy a gateway behind us to prevent pursuit. Then we'd need replacement weapons from the black market. And overhaul would be impossible."

"Yes. And I have to wonder what Orchidia will do, given her drive to survive."

In Harker's quarters, a whimsical waif silently appeared. The avatar drew near the sleeping man, stopping next to his duffel bag. A ghostly hand reached through the fabric. When it located the personal data pad, it went to work.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The Zero Option

Four men attended a briefing at Pluto Station. Like most chambers in the shell of this moon-sized sphere, it looked out on a vast interior. Ships of all types floated at their moorings, awaiting their turn at the cavernous sender bay, which linked to other portals in the galaxy. Most had yet to be explored. The Builders had moved on eons ago, figuring that by the time a species reached the distant gateways, they were mature enough to use them.

They had never met humans.

Commander Donny Moast lounged with one leg over the chair side. He got away with that because he was mercenary, not military. The Consortium had recruited him out of the Apocalypse Wars on Earth because of his reputation for unorthodox (translate insane) solutions. Not being the button-down type, he disdained uniforms for his traditional black leathers.

A giant screen displayed known portals. Color codes ranged from black--a dead or useless system--to green, one which proved profitable.

And profit was everything. The Consortium's chief field rep was here to assure that. Trenn Harker, a crusty, retired former dreadnought captain, scowled out the window.

Admiral Jacobs turned his rotund form in that direction, straightening his red uniform tunic. "She's quite an elegant design, eh, Harker?"

Orchidia was unique in its class, a midsize vessel armed with the latest weaponry, and fastest in the fleet. Twin, high-mount engine pylons rose aft of the droop wings. The long nose was needed to house the barrel of the feared pulse gun. Yet she was no more military than Moast himself, but rather a creation of Consortium speculators operating outside the admiralty's purview.

Harker's craggy face considered Moast. "I don't fault the ship's design, Admiral, except for its AI. It created an avatar that scares workmen out of their boots when this limp-haired, round-eyed waif appears."

"When that happens," Moast said, "you need to pay attention. It means you're doing something that makes her uncomfortable, like the time you tried to sneak a spy package into her programming. Maybe she's justified in being a little paranoid. But she saved our cans more than once by being hyper vigilant"

The admiral watched the last of the new explosive-reactive panels being fitted on the starboard nacelle. "Save it for another day. We're keen to evaluate that new defense system. Lieutenant--"

A junior officer homed in on a red portal, one placed off limits. It lay in the dwarf galaxy Sagittarius, one of several dwarfs subsumed by the Milky Way, comprising about one percent of galactic mass. "One of our probes was destroyed by a directed energy weapon of a type that starts a chain reaction of disruptive--"

"A disintegrator beam," Harker cut in. "Get on with it."

Unperturbed, the lieutenant  brought up a galactic map. "Icarus is a blue super giant comprising the most distant star visible from here. Official designation: MACS J1149. Coordinates were detected by the probe, linked to another area in Sagittarius. There may be another extra-galactic gateway in the system, a network that leapfrogs across galaxies. It may even be the Builders' point of origin."

"Think of it." Harker slapped a palm down. "When Icarus was born, only thirty percent of the universe had yet formed. Imagine what we can learn there!"

Admiral Jacobs brought up a comm screen from the table center. "Not so fast, Harker. Someone out there is very possessive of the system." He punched up Orchidia's bridge, where First Officer Preston minded the store. Her blonde, red-uniformed visage stared back. "Kyra, how long before you can make sail?"

"Estimating four hours, Admiral, when the armor system goes to trial runs."

Jacobs signed off, turning Moast a blank face.

The meaning wasn't lost on Moast. "And Harker, of course, is tagging along."

"Drat it, Moast!--" Harker rose. "That ship is property, not a home for your rogue AI! I'll be there to determine whether it needs to be replaced." He rubbed at his jaw. "Take a look at this." He called up some of the ship's blueprints. Proposed modifications showed retractable wings for getting into tight spaces. "Would you like to know who the architect is?"

Moast knew. "We all like to improve ourselves. I sense you feel I've too much confidence in the AI."

Harker paused at the door. "The commander can also be replaced." He stalked out.

The specter of the "zero option" arose. It was an uneasy topic among the crew, one in which they truly went rogue, becoming free--and hunted--agents.