Ian J Miller
This book is part of my “future history”, and hence the previous trilogies offer some background, but it is not essential, and this is a stand-alone novel for those who want something that is of a little more substance than most. It is an epic with 18 major characters, four alien races, several romances, not all of which end well, treachery, a variation on “The Prisoner’s Dilemma”, and is set variously in 3 continents, the Earth-Moon L-5 space station, Mars, Iapetus, the asteroid belt and Miranda.
In 2285, thirty-four exhausts are seen travelling at relativistic velocities to end on Miranda, the innermost moon of Uranus. Before long, they conquer Mars, and imprison a number of settlers for use as forced labour. Natasha Kotchetkova, the Commissioner for Defence is faced with an alien race that totally outclasses any Earth defence. Earth is doomed. Only things are not quite so simple. The invaders are more mercenaries, acting on behalf of treacherous humans in return for the forced labour required to repair their battle-scarred ships.
Then the Roman Legatus G. CLAVD. SCAEVOLA returns from an alien planet to offer what help he could to defeat alien invaders, and to meet his prophesied “only woman remaining in his life”, who was also the ugliest woman in the world. Perhaps there was hope? But even if Terran forces can win, how can they win the following peace?
While there were many sore heads on January 1st, 2285, none were due to celebrating what history books would term the end to the Age of Stability, also known as the Age of Balance. January 1st, 2285 was the same as all other New Year Days in living memory. That was the very essence of stability, and the rightful consequence of balance.
The politicians within the countries of the Federation continued to make their same platitudinous speeches in the same ineffectual fora, to the same level of inattention. When there is no need for change, and indeed a desperate need for no change, the material available to politicians is strangely limited, especially when they can take no credit at all for the comfortable standard of living all enjoyed. Economic control resided in the eighty giant corporations, and in return for the good things in life staff would continue to give their unqualified servitude. Never before in the history of the planet had so little effort been required to support such lifestyles. Full cooperation with the providers of such benevolence seemed the least the staff could return.
Life on the Moon and the great space stations was a marvel of constancy. Only on Mars did two slightly unusual events take place on December 31, 2284. Perhaps the first gave a clue to the underlying failure of stability, for although corporations were expressly forbidden to leave Earth, December 31, 2284 was the first time representatives of different corporations met socially, if secretly, off-Earth. The second was not the stuff of a change of Age. At Hellas, a worker’s delegation led by a Mr Groza published an appeal to abandon the Terran calendar on Mars, although it was emphasized that two sets of statutory holidays be placed in the new Martian calendar.
Relations remained constant between the Federation and the Southern Bloc, which consisted of South America and much of Africa. The Federation continued to demand that the Southern Bloc open up its resources and businesses for takeover by the Corporations, and the Southern Bloc duly refused. Direct trade between the two blocs remained at zero value for 2284, and no change was predicted for 2285; the Corporations continued to demand debt repayment in kind, while the southern countries ignored the threats. The island states of the South Pacific belonged to neither Federation nor Southern Bloc. Nominally independent, they also acted as free trade areas, and it was here, almost on a barter basis, that goods flowed between the two great blocs. Despite the statements from the Federation about how they did not need the south, materials as diverse as cobalt and coffee were always in keen demand.
The independents saw no escape from their ghettos that were scattered throughout the Federation. Although their services were essential for the running of the Federation, by refusing to work for any corporation they suffered constant persecution. The position of the new Jews remained unchanged in January 2285.
The corporate bosses spent the 1st of January 2285 in exactly the same way as any other New Year’s Day. Statutory reports from the previous year had been reprocessed, with the dates and a few trivial details altered so they could be announced on this day. Once again all corporations received their resource allocations, which were exactly the same as those of the previous year, and they made the same deals as previously with the other corporations. No power forced them to comply, however, the remaining corporations would move against any that, through greed, ambition, whatever, refused. This was the very nature of Balance. Debts between the corporations were written off, and prices readjusted to ensure that no sector took advantage of another. The debt load and a list of the new entitlements were then reallocated to the corporate staff and the service demands made. These were virtually the same as the previous year, perforce. The balance sheets between corporations and within corporations remained constant.
Those on the Executive Council of the Federation saw nothing out of the ordinary. Lawrence Kleppe, Commissioner for Finance, perused the end-of-year statements with satisfaction, for all sectors were in balance. Imre Halas, Commissioner for the Environment, had too sore a head to make a complete assessment of his data, but it did not matter. The environment was in exactly the same state as predicted, and pollution levels were down 2% from the previous January. Elizabeth Garrett, Commissioner for Justice, could have been forgiven for feeling pleased with herself; while surveillance spending was up eleven per cent from the previous year, there had been a corresponding increase in the apprehension of criminals and a much greater level of success at conviction. Justice was running at a record profit.
Natasha Kotchetkova, Commissioner for Defence, never celebrated, although she would have been satisfied for strangely charmed matter had now been successfully stored for over one year. This matter was the most effective means of generating energy known, and in principle the potential for a motor powerful enough to take ships to the stars was at hand. She had two goals besides seeing this motor built: the first was to bring the southern bloc into the Federation by peaceful means; the second was to see her thirty-third birthday.
Although the Brazilians had not rejected her overtures out of hand, there were many problems to overcome. The votes of the southern bloc would enable measures to be passed to stamp down hard on the corruption associated with the corporate system; unfortunately the corporate votes were needed to get the necessary votes to admit the Southern bloc.
Because she despised corruption she was isolated professionally; because she let nobody see her body she was isolated personally. Her body had never recovered from the space accident, and while the cancers had been defeated, the cost had been too high. She knew she would never see her fortieth birthday; to see her thirty-third was her current goal. She had been made Commissioner partly on a wave of public sympathy for her bravery, partly as a compromise because everybody knew her occupancy of the position would be very temporary, and partly to keep that incompetent and corrupt fop Streckov at bay. Streckov had been the highest-ranking Defence officer, and only Natasha’s public standing offered a realistic choice. Too many feared that Streckov would join Defence to one of the major corporations, a move that would undo the Balance, and the consequences of that were too terrible to contemplate. Natasha Kotchetkova was a temporary solution to a difficult problem.
Each of these facts contributed to events of 2285 and 2286, but of these facts, only the existence of the strangely charmed matter was ever mentioned in subsequent history books. Meanwhile on this January 1st neither Natasha Kotchetkova nor any other citizen on Earth had any reason to believe that the Balance would not persist indefinitely.
SYDNEY, NEW YORK, SAO PAOLO, ARSIA MONS
March – May, 2285
Seek and ye shall find! Whoever had put that at the head of the space cadet’s manual, thought Harold Lansfeld, was clearly an incurable optimist, a complete fool, or an exponent of some ancient art of torture. He had sought, he had not found, he held a key that would give him access this night to the most sophisticated equipment in the Federation, and he had failed to find anything promising to use it on.
Harry had completed all but one of the requirements to gain entry to an advanced space academy. The one remaining task was simple: he had to describe an object in the solar system that was previously unknown, unclear, or insufficiently well characterised that the new information would be useful, or at least be potentially useful. This would not usually be considered a challenging task, and the reports from the other applicants were rolling in. The usual project was to calculate the orbital characteristics of a so-far uncharted asteroid, or to rediscover a piece of lost space junk. As a consequence of this painstaking work by countless students over the past one hundred and fifty years, space flight was now relatively safe. This was not exactly profound science, but for the other contenders this did not matter. Their objective was simply to complete the requirements for entry. It was not so simple for Harry: he had ambition.
Once again he sat in the now familiar chair before the now familiar console. He turned the switches on, went through the warm-up procedures, then he turned to the keyboard and began typing rapidly. Symbols flew across the screen in front of him, but he barely took the time to register their existence. This was Australia’s largest optical telescope, more than enough for this task, yet it was the least important tool this night. On the other hand, now was the time to deploy it. He glanced at the clock. In another seventeen minutes he could use his key to open the otherwise forbidden console, then use his password to gain access to the Federation deep space telescope array. This meant the full spectral range: long wavelength radio through to ultrashort gamma, not that these extremes were expected to be of assistance for his project. They went with the honour.
If it were an honour. No other applicant for the space academy had ever had access to these resources, and Harry was aware that he was not that exceptional. Without the backing of FoodBund this could not have happened. Yet Harry was aware that a Munro had previously entered a space academy, and nothing like this had been given to the nephew of one of the most powerful men on Earth.
He was the top Australian contender for a space academy; he had a first in physics from Sydney University, he had full jet flying experience as a Defence reservist, the highest certificate in electro-optical engineering, certificates in marine and astral navigation, and far more than the required sporting and physical requirements. He had even represented New South Wales in a martial art.
He was even popular with his fellow students. The capable students respected his ability; the less capable were clearly envious, but the less their ability, the greater was their sycophancy. For Harry was known to possess a diamond card, one of those very rare items with the necessary details embedded in a matrix of crystalline carbon. The card allowed almost unlimited credit with the payments being met by a corporation. Harry had clearly been born with more than the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.
If only they knew! Harry was well aware that when Snyder first offered him the card he was expected to refuse. Harry burned with hate; he wanted revenge for his father’s death. The corporation knew this and it would crush him, but before it could do this, it had to offer Justice a plausible demonstration that Harry was truly a threat worthy of pre-emptive action. The offer of a diamond card was an extraordinarily generous offer of compensation, and the expected refusal from Harry would be clear proof of the hate he held.
It always amused Harry to remember the look on Snyder’s face when he calmly accepted. It was even more amusing to watch Snyder’s face when it became apparent that his use of the card was so modest. For Snyder had seen the card as a Greek gift; the cost would be worth it if Harry accepted and then self-destructed, and with such unlimited resources, who could fail to self-destruct? But apart from an initial spending spree, in which Harry guaranteed himself some financial security should the card be removed, followed by that extreme rarity, a beach house for entertaining, his spending was very modest. It increased again when he needed university fees and the ownership of a nearby apartment, but such charges were trivial for the holder of a diamond card. Snyder was amused to see Harry go to university, and was almost impressed to see that Harry was so successful.
Initially Snyder began to think that Harry had accepted the way things were, and that Harry would emerge as a useful citizen, possibly even working in FoodBund. That could be difficult: where did you put the holder of a diamond card? Then Snyder became aware of Harry’s goal. Space! Suddenly Snyder began to respect Harry. Whether Harry knew it or not, he was obtaining revenge, for the corporations, despite all their power, were restricted to Earth. Yet here was Harry, now no longer seen as a student but perhaps as an element in the off-world goal, about to go where no corporation had officially gone before. Snyder’s problem was simple: how could he know whether he could trust Harry? Snyder knew that if he accepted Harry he could be cultivating the seeds of a monumental problem for his corporation, but on the other hand he could also be throwing away a key to space if he rejected Harry. The eventual solution was based on practicalities; with what Harry had achieved he seemed certain to become a spacer, in which case there was little point in trying to stop him. FoodBund would throw what it could behind Harry; the decision as to whether to use him or simply accept the costs could be deferred until he reached space. If nothing else, the exercise gave surprisingly cheap and favourable publicity for the corporation.
Admission to the basic training centres was now assured, but Harry had a greater ambition; if he could make direct entry to one of the advanced academies, in one year he could attempt to transfer to the elite military academy near Tashkent. Although all aspects of the military should be relics of the past, the fact remained that this academy produced the most highly paid and influential space pilots and space scientists. But of even greater relevance was that Defence, coupled with the Commissioner’s other responsibility for science and technology, was responsible for the development of space exploration and settlement. There was even a rumour of an impending attempt at interstellar exploration. The dream of dreams, beyond anything of interest to Snyder, and Snyder would have to pay the price. Always assuming, of course, that Harry could get anywhere near the space project, which required Tashkent, which required prior admission to an advanced academy.
Which brought him to his current problem. Entry to the advanced academy required a practical project in direct observation, and this project had to be related to the solar system. Actually, Harry mused, the manual did not say which solar system! That, of course, would be irrelevant for space cadets, because there were no telescopes on Earth capable of seeing anything of significance in another solar system. However, the deep space telescopes could. They had already established that most of the close main sequence stars had planetary systems, and if their star had had an early T Tauri cleanout, when the star began ejecting the dust and gas of the accretion disk, then the planetary systems would resemble the Sol solar system. If the star was of comparable size to the sun, there should be a rocky planet like Earth in the habitable zone. Now, suppose he were to check out a system with low metallicity? He could examine the planets in theTau cetisystem! Now that would throw the academy judges.
He could even look at what was forbidden by the Commission for Defence:Epsilon eridani. Only eleven light years away, but after the initial flutter of papers, nothing! Two ancient papers that were published in Icarus during the twenty-second century seemed particularly significant, at least to those few who had heard of them; few had because they were electronically deleted very soon after publication. Amongst Harry’s proudest possessions were tatty old hard copies given to him for safe keeping by old Professor Ashton. They were given to him partly because Harry had impressed the professor, but another part of the reason was that Harry was one of the very few who could keep the copies alive. Even Defence could not open the special safe deposits keyed only by diamond cards.
But what was it that led to such censorship? The first paper noted that the orbits of the three rocky planets did not follow the Bode-Titius law, and that the orbits of two of them did not fit into any theory of planetary formation. While unexpected, that was hardly likely to lead to the collapse of civilization! Harry knew that the encouragement of scientific dissension was more the myth than the reality, but a deviation from Bode’s law seemed hardly worth such heavy-handedness, particularly when there were so many other systems that deviated. The other claimed to have observed anomalous electromagnetic radiation emissions that appeared to have incredible blue shifts. The only possible explanation appeared to be that the motors of an advanced space ship had been detected. There was an immediate flurry of speculation that at last a planet with advanced technology had been located, and so close to Earth.
Perhaps that was it! If Harry could prove that, what a project! Not that he could, he reflected glumly, his mood now changing to reflect reality. First, there were the laws of evolution. Epsilon eridani was a very young star. There might be life on planets around it, but nothing bigger than a bacterium would have had time to evolve. Which left open the question, why was study forbidden? The nature of the inner planets about such a young star should settle the question for once and for all what the conditions were likely to be when biogenesis got underway. The issue was important because the generation of life required specific conditions, and it was important to know whether these were likely to be common or highly unusual.
All of which was also irrelevant because he could not even locate the planets in one night. The necessary background was missing from the computer files, at least those he had access to. And even if he did find the planets, it was certain that he would never reach an academy. Defence did not reward smart-arses! So back to his current problem: he badly needed something better than a discarded lump of metal to justify access to this telescope array.
One possibility might have been a really good asteroid, coming close to the Earth, which could be useful as the basis of a space colony. The great space colonies at the Earth-Moon Lagrange points were marvels of technology and persistence. The colony at L-5 was forty kilometers long and one at L-4 was even bigger. Inside these great rotating cylinders, assembled by robots from materials flung up from the moon, people had built farms, cities and virtually all requirements for a relatively luxurious lifestyle. The volatiles were obtained by even more difficult means: high velocity carbonaceous chondrite asteroids and icy bodies from further out had been caught and decelerated using a reverse mass driver. This was an incredibly tricky manoeuvre, and made water incredibly expensive, yet it was possible to canoe down streams and sail yachts in sizeable lakes. Centrifugal force provided almost 1 g on most of the colonies, and they were the only space colonies with sufficient “gravity” to allow settlers to return to Earth without significant discomfort.
A sizeable asteroid would have its own material. Many students had studied the Apollo asteroids, or even the Amor asteroids, in the hopes of having a colony named after them, but now the supply of unstudied asteroids had dried up. Another possibility was a far out icy Centaur; if it could be brought in to nudge an Apollo with one or both ending on an Earth-Sun Trojan point . . ? But he was dreaming. The academies wanted simple tabulations of data, not adventurous proposals that were economically near impossible to fulfil.
In a nutshell, Harry’s problem was that he was short of a project. He had searched and searched, but it is difficult to find what is not there. He had tried; he had spent weeks on this great optical telescope in the near desert outback, but he had found nothing. Perhaps, Harry mused, Snyder’s gift was intended to be more of a Trojan horse. Well, then, Harry thought, I hope Snyder has a good grasp of physics, because he was going to need it to open the Trojan gates.
He looked towards the clock. Nearly time! He put the key into the lock and turned, then carefully pulled down the console. Even he was impressed with what happened. Most of the wall folded away, a series of keyboards folded out, and what had been a wall was now a sequence of giant screens. He keyed in his password, and the screens came to life. The deep space array was now under his control.
The modern observatory was an amazing collection of technology, so much so that the ‘observer’ did very little observing. Once upon a time, Harry realized, observers had to steer larger telescopes by sighting with smaller ‘finding’ telescopes. Now, the observer examined tables, typed in the details, and waited for the computers to do what was required. Which was all very well, except that you focussed on what the instructions required, which meant that you knew where the object was. Unfortunately he did not seem to have an object. He continued keying in coordinates, and the great deep space telescope complex turned its attention, for twelve hours only, on Uranus. He was down to his fall-back project: the effect of sunspot activity on the magnetosphere of Uranus. This was not the material to set the world on fire, and the bad luck that had seemingly dogged him had continued. There had been remarkably little sunspot activity over the period during which coronal mass ejections would strike Uranus while he was viewing. His project now would have to be something along the lines of the effect of the absence of sunspot activity on the magnetosphere of Uranus. Effectively he had to throw the judges a raw prawn.
Unfortunately the outer solar system was too cold for long-term settlement, and the satellites at these distances were considered to be too icy to be of interest for mining. The gravitational fields of the moons were too low for long-term comfort, but the masses were too high to create artificial gravity by centrifugal forces. In short, they were useless. Except, Harry’s prawn would propose, possibly for the very inner moons of Uranus. These were very small, and could be “spun up”. It was possible they could make useful bases for the proposed assembly of deep space vehicles, but of course they were deeply immersed in the magnetosphere of Uranus, hence the relevance of the fall-back study. Accordingly, it would be important . . . this part needed more work! . . . to know about the magnetosphere effects in the absence of coronal mass ejections. His best chance to get away with that, he thought, would be if the judges knew absolutely nothing about physics, and were impressed by the prodigious number of equations he could use.
The best that could be said about this proposal was that it did technically complete the requirements, and it would certainly be different from the other contenders. If only the judges would fall into the trap of equating different with good.
There remained one possible alternative, one last straw for a drowning Harry to grasp. When he had studied the photographs from his previous observations, he had noticed something quite unusual: a new light source, which, on ultra magnification, had been resolved into several point sources. He had run the usual computer subtractions from the standard database, which was a useful way of detecting new objects, and they remained. How they had never been found before was a complete puzzle for while they were a reasonable distance from the ecliptic, that region had been intensely searched, and while these were not exactly bright, they could be detected on the largest telescopes employed by amateurs. The spectral analysis was odd too; the usual identifiable lines were missing. Perhaps he had discovered something! Most likely a glitch in the spectrometer or the computer analysers, he thought to himself.
This time he could have his cake and eat it. While the giant array was collecting data on Uranus, he could catalogue his objects. They might be outside the scope of his project, but additional material might just give him the edge he needed. Of course if the spectrometer was not misbehaving, he might even have discovered something; quasars did not have identifiable lines until the spectral shift was recognized. He was almost feeling more cheerful as he peered at the visual display screen. There, at the bottom of the screen, that is, nearest the horizon, was Aldebaran. He moved the screen up five degrees, keyed in the background array, and hit subtract. The screen was black.
He stared in disbelief. Impossible! He rechecked the coordinates, relocked the telescope, and again hit subtract. Still nothing! He stared at his photographs, then he realized what must have happened. There was an old saying that all was fair in love and war; apparently the same could be said for getting into the space academy. Harry was only too painfully aware that he had a reputation for being an easy victim, for taking too much at face value, for not realizing that people told lies or stretched the truth, or even, it seemed, would try to destroy his reputation. But this seemed a very strange prank. Surely none of his competitors would think he would fall for that? With no identifiable spectrum, he would surely have searched again? Then there was the question of how anyone had got at his data.
That question was, perhaps, not so difficult. He loved Jane, and while he was certain that Jane loved him, she was always trying to impress someone. She must have told his friends in the physics lab; this would be just the sort of prank that would appeal to them. If Jane had told them that he needed a discovery, those rats might well have provided him with one. Possibly with Snyder’s blessing!
Harry was aware that he was a target in more ways than one. Harry had always been an enigma for the other students. From all his actions, he was clearly not from a corporate family, yet as a consequence of the diamond card, he owned a flat in a block reserved for the families of very senior corporates. None of those who knew him knew what school he had attended; that was because he had not attended a “respectable” school. What nobody knew was that Harry had been brought up as an independent. Harry kept this very quiet, not because he was afraid, but because he believed that a little mystery would bring him access to girls. The only conclusion everyone could come to was that Harry was the son of one of the very top corporates, not one of the salaried, but one of the owners. That made him a magnet for the otherwise inaccessible girls, and he had revelled in this totally unjustifiable reputation. Until, that is, he had met Jane.
Jane was different. She was beautiful, vivacious, and marvellous at parties. She did not fawn over him, indeed, if anything, she had this slightly irritating habit of neglecting him at times. Her family were probably upper middle corporates; unlike most of the others, she kept quiet about her family connections. Possibly she did not have any, which would have made her somewhat undesirable to the corporate climbing males at university. But a lack of openings for nepotism in the corporations did not worry Harry; he had no intention of joining one. He intended to go into space. Come to think of it, Jane was less than keen on this idea; perhaps she had intentionally organized this prank to keep him back in Australia.
He returned to the keyboard, and keyed in the coordinates for Uranus. As the mountings of the great telescope began to creak and groan again as it swung around, he poured himself a cup of coffee, and sipped. As he sat back and stared at the dials, he became more relaxed. Perhaps, after all, he had merely found a computer glitch. Hardly a discovery worthy of accelerated admission to the space academy, but it got around the problem of how people got at his data, and also explained why there was no spectrum. Just because everyone was out to get him, there was no need to become paranoid!
As the telescope reached its new orientation he keyed up the wide-angle display. There was a large selection of light points, a random scatter of stars to the uninitiated. But Harry was not uninitiated. He quickly found Castor and Pollux, then drew, in his mind, a line to Zeta Tauri; intersect that with the line between Beta Tauri and Eta Geminorum, and there it should be. Two objects close together, and the one at the centre of his display should be Uranus. This could quickly be checked, as he keyed in for the stellar background to be subtracted. As expected, there in the centre of the screen, as required, was the green ball Uranus, and three of the major satellites were also visible.
As were his cluster of light points, although they were no longer so bright or clearly resolvable. It was now clear why nobody had discovered them before; they were moving and they had variable intensity! Movement meant that they were in the solar system, and the fact they had not been discovered presumably meant that Harry had spotted them at a time during which they had . . . had what? None of this made sense to Harry. How could objects in the solar system, which were presumably detectable through reflected sunlight, have variable intensity? Could they flare up, like a comet, and thus increase their surface area and hence reflect more light?
It was clear that his finding them was a sheer accident. Perhaps his luck had changed, but which way? Discovering new objects was only the beginning; he then had to characterize them. That would normally be easy as there was a pattern to every type of object, and that pattern allowed immediate identification. These objects, however, did not seem to fit any recognizable pattern. To begin with, they were going in the opposite direction to the normal planetary orbits. Objects this radically unusual could be more a curse than a blessing.
What could they be, and why so many? There were at least twenty-seven light sources, all travelling with the same velocity, and there, by Uranus, was another one, which was somewhat duller. He compared the pattern on his photograph with the one on the screen. The pattern of the main group was the same, but the objects had now come closer together, and his first photograph did not contain this isolated light. It was difficult to see that they could be natural; two dozen asteroids of that brightness, that close together, would have been noticed long ago. Perhaps they were pieces of comet? He stared at the photograph, and after some closer examination, he was convinced that the objects were not round; they seemed to have tails. That was it! He had discovered a comet that had broken up. Not that the astronomical tables gave any indication of a comet at this location, but it could be an extremely long period comet. But if that were the case, why had it broken up, and the pieces then stayed so closely together? And, for that matter, appeared to have come closer together? To say nothing of the last problem: if these objects were this close, and the elongations were cometary tails, why were the tails not pointing away from the sun?
The other alternative was that they were man-made. At least twenty-seven of them? The Mars cargo craft always travelled singly, and anyway there were not twenty-seven Mars craft in existence. The only organization that could conceivably have twenty-seven craft would be Defence. If the lights were motor exhaust, and it was hard to think what else they could be if they were craft, who would fire motors for two days? Only ships leaving the Earth system! To go where? For that matter, where did they come from, on that particular path? And why were the tails pointing into the direction of travel? If they were motor exhausts, that would indicate they were slowing down, not starting up.
Who could have launched them? Even Defence could hardly launch twenty-seven craft into space for an extended journey without NewsCorp finding out, or for that matter, Independent News. No, it would be impossible to launch at least twenty-seven craft from Earth or the colonies without anybody knowing.
So what were they? One piece of fortune, good or bad, was that since they now had the same angular coordinates as Uranus, the deep space telescopes would give him as much information as could be obtained. And he had better do something about those telescopes. A series of operations had to be checked, as the user of the telescope cluster was responsible for the various automated satellite functions. He set the local telescope into the recording mode, locked the orientation into automatic tracking, and returned to the other console. All telescopes were locked on Uranus, and were recording as intended. Harry picked up the manual, and started keying in commands. This procedure might be routine, he thought, but it was certainly time consuming. Still, it was part of the price he had to pay, and he was glad to pay it.
Two hours later, he strode back to his stock of coffee, poured another cup, then he went back to the local telescope’s display. There, in the centre of the display, was Uranus, but the other lights had disappeared. As far as his studies on Uranus went, there was a redundant optical telescope, namely the one in the observatory he had used before to find the lights. Time to put it to good use! He quickly keyed in some commands to another console, then he began searching. He had moved through over a degree when the single light came into view, but search as hard as he could, there was no sign of the others. He then decided to lock the ground-based telescope onto the remaining light: a computer now ensured that this object remained in the centre of the display, while the coordinates were recorded. With this done, he had nothing to do. Time, he thought, for more coffee and sandwiches.
The light fascinated him. To have so much angular movement, either it was very close or was moving at enormous speed. His fellow students at Sydney University were always going on about the excessive spending by Defence on developing new military hardware that was totally irrelevant. After all, there were no enemies that could offer a serious threat to the Federation. However, there were also rumours that much of this money was being spent on developing an interstellar drive. Suppose he was viewing the initial trials? Such trials would be highly secret, and if he had the data, why, anything could happen. He could be an instant hero in the media, provided he was prepared to give up his ambitions to join the Space Corps. Alternatively, this knowledge just might suffice for a project. Defence could possibly smooth his way, because the alternative would be grossly unwelcome public disclosure. Some would call that implied bribery, but admission to the Space Corps was highly competitive, and his competitors would not hesitate. He would have to think about this, and quickly because in two weeks Commissioner Kotchetkova was to speak at Sydney University. That was the time to do whatever he decided to do.
He went back to his telescope with yet another coffee. The light source was still moving, and was roughly where he expected it to be. But there was, perhaps, something strange about it. He checked the dials, and found he was correct; the signal strength was higher. If it were a motor firing at a constant power output, then it was coming closer. If it were coming closer, Newton’s second law meant it was decelerating. Which meant it had started a long way out there!
The object fascinated him, but it would soon be setting below the horizon, which meant he would lose it on his local telescope, but not if he used one of the optical telescopes in the deep space complex. If he turned that telescope off Uranus, what would that do to his project? Did he have enough information? If the authorities found out he had taken the telescope off his designated project to follow something stupid he could fail entry to the academy. On the other hand his data on Uranus included unknown objects, and if he made no effort to identify them . . . ? He quickly decided; he keyed the new coordinates into one of the available optical telescopes, brought its output onto his screen, keyed in the spectral analyser, and prayed.
It was a little before dawn when the final puzzle occurred. In front of the light a brilliant light source occurred, which suddenly turned itself into two jets of light, speeding out at high velocity in opposite directions. The line of the jets was normal to the trajectory of the light source, and the light source then proceeded to travel through the centre of the display. Harry quickly locked the computer into the angular coordinates, and commenced displaying a variety of possible background objects.
There was no space junk far enough away from Earth to make sense, and very fortunately there were no spacecraft within that sector. There was only one object that fitted the angular coordinates, and that was a small asteroid. If that were the case, he had just seen something pass through what was left of ten cubic kilometers of rock. That would involve power that made the biggest hydrogen bomb seem like a squib! There was also the question of brightness. If that light was out as far as the asteroid belt, it must be far brighter than he had assumed, and its velocity must be far higher. If that craft belonged to Defence, then they had been working illicitly both on a drive system and a weapon of immense power. But if it were not . . . ?
Harry was in an extremely pensive mood as he closed down his equipment.