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Snippet #1 for One Dark Future

 

Are you ready for the first snippet of the next Opus X book? I'm very curiuos where this is heading!

 

April 1, 2230, Low Earth Orbit, Llewellyn Observatory

 

The horde of data windows and augmented reality overlays in Tony’s smart lenses didn’t do much to dull the excruciating pain of sorting through the piles of data.

So, he made up stupid questions in the middle of an almost incapacitatingly boring data review. His latest was how many years of his life would he be willing to give up to be the person or persons responsible for a great discovery?

Of course, everything depended on the prize. If it was significant enough, he had decided that twenty years would be the maximum. With the ability to prolong life, that wasn’t too much to rake off the end. With a large enough prize, he would be able to afford it.

Maybe six months for something mundane.

Tony had been excited when he was selected for the Vand Foundation Fellowship to Llewellyn Observatory. Not having to hustle for grants to support his graduate work in astronomy meant he should be able to concentrate on the science like he’d always dreamed. It wasn’t the foundation’s fault his dream wasn’t living up to reality.

Even as an undergraduate, he’d quickly understood science was five percent glorious discovery and ninety-five percent hard work.

Or was that ninety-nine percent perspiration, one percent inspiration?

Understanding the less impressive parts of academic research didn’t mean he held his patrons in great regard. Tony used to be impressed with charitable groups like the Vand Foundation, but he’d convinced himself they were mostly tax dodges and PR.

It didn’t mean he disliked them, but other than pro forma letters of thanks, he wasn’t about to go overboard.

Still, he didn’t mind for the moment. The grant was helping him, and he’d shake Sophia Vand’s hand if he ever ran into her, which wasn’t likely.

From what he’d heard on the news, she was keeping a low profile, to the point she’d disappeared from the public eye.

He couldn’t blame her, given some of the recent terrorist incidents. Someone like her was more likely to be targeted than a random graduate student like him. That didn’t stop his jealousy, especially when he concluded she probably didn’t even have anything to do with her family foundation other than the occasional news conference.

“If only I could be rich and do what I want and hide when people get annoying.” Tony let his head loll back as he let out a long groan. “This isn’t what I signed up for. I don’t care what they say about that second- and third-year itch!”

Arda, the other graduate student on the station, looked at him with a frown. Tony didn’t want to piss him off.

With only three people on the observatory, including the supervising professor, any personal problems would be painful, and Tony wasn’t scheduled to leave for two months. Despite his whining, he understood the path to a more stimulating future of concentrating on the big picture while having grad students do the grunt work included his current predicament.

He was the stepping stone at this point in his life.

“What did you sign up for, then?” Arda asked. Something about his accent always made it hard for Tony to figure out if he was being sarcastic. He pointed at a graph. “You’re confirming the system analysis with spot checks. That seems to me like it’s exactly what you signed up for. What did you think you were going to do?”

“We can let the system analyze all the comet data.” Tony gestured toward his wall of data windows. “We waste a bunch of our time doing manual spot checks when we should be spending more time doing low-level analysis on candidates of interest, but Professor Lal’s blocking us. He’s using us as the world’s least efficient error-checking routines.” He slapped his palm against his forehead. “It’s not even like he doesn’t believe the system. You heard him the other day. We’re doing this on the off-chance we’re missing something! That’s what he said. I could have done this on Earth. What’s the point of even being up here?”

Arda stared at Tony, disapproval building on his face. “I thought you wanted to do your thesis project on long-period comets.” He tapped at a virtual keyboard and brought up a close-up of a dense comet with a long, wispy tail. “It’s not insane that you would be assigned to do data analysis on Solar System comets.”

“You’re missing the point.” Tony lifted his arm and swept away half his data windows. “Look, I’m not trying to be a jerk. I want to do analysis work. However, I don’t want to do glorified error-checking for stupid algorithms. I’m supposed to be training to be a scientist.”

“And this is part of science.” Arda stared at the comet image. “It’s funny when you think about it.”

“How is it funny? You find our valuable time being wasted amusing? I’m sure the Vand Foundation doesn’t throw around academic grants for graduate students to do pointless busywork.”

Arda shook his head, turning away from the picture with a smile. “No, not this work. You and me, being here. That’s what’s funny.”

Tony sighed, doing his best not to show his annoyance to the other student. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Care to explain?”

“Think about it.” Arda brought up a three-dimensional image of a long-period comet with an elliptical orbit that had it spending thousands of years away from anything in the inner Solar System at a time. “See this one?”

“C/1822 N1,” Tony read off the image’s legend. “Judging by the data, still on its way out, with its next closet run around the seventh millennium.” He smirked. “I think I’ll be done with my data analysis by then.”

Arda gave his head a weary shake, his eyes betraying his disdain for Tony’s thought process. “When it was last closest to Earth, we’d barely begun mastering electricity. Coal trains were the epitome of transportation technology.” He stood and gestured broadly. “In the few centuries on its way out, we’ve gone from mastering the land to the skies and even space. We’ve left our home planet and system. We’ve spread across the stars and run into aliens.”

“Yeah? So?” Tony shrugged. “Technology and humanity march on. That’s why we run Earth and not penguins or those little bastard koala bears.”

“That’s just it.” Arda sank back into his seat. “We have colonies fifty light-years away, but in our home system, we’ve never sent a person farther than Sedna. Of all these comets you’re complaining about, what percentage have we even sent probes to?”

Tony blinked as he thought about the implications. “You’re right, but that’s why I wanted to do something with long-period comets. I know all the sexy research is exosystem work, let alone the ton of people trying to do remote analysis work on alien systems. But here, the mystery’s still waiting for us, even if Lal’s got us wasting time being pointless…” He narrowed his eyes as he focused on his screen. “What the hell? That’s not right.”

“Excuse me? There’s no reason to talk that way to me.”

“Not you, Arda.” Tony licked his lips and pointed at one of his remaining data windows. It was nothing but columns and numbers, but both knew how to interpret time-series comet orbital data.

“Then what?”

“That’s not right!” Tony shouted, his eyes bulging. He summoned three new data windows, all filled with more specific data on a particular comet. His eyes darted back and forth as he continued entering commands. It couldn’t be what he thought.

“What’s going on?” Arda asked.

“Give me a minute. I’m trying to figure something out.”

Arda rolled his eyes and folded his arms. Tony might have annoyed the other student, but if what he was seeing in front of him was accurate, he’d have a far more exciting thesis subject. There was one minor problem with his plan for scientific glory.

“Oh, damn it,” Tony moaned. “I’m going to have to admit to Professor Lal that he was right to make me do this.”

Arda leaned closer to the screen. “What are you seeing?”

Tony jabbed his finger at a data window. “Don’t you get it? One-hundred-thousand-year period on this baby. It’s not super-close at about 1000 AUs out from us right now, about twice as far as Sedna, but you see this?” He pointed to several numbers. “These aren’t just orbit variations. These are orbital changes from the basic expected orbit, all within the last couple of months.”

“That’s impossible. Comets just don’t abruptly change course.” Arda shrugged, the disbelief clear on his face.

“Yeah, it’s weird.” Tony shook his head. “I’ve seen tracking data on this comet before, and I didn’t see these numbers.”

“Then it’s just some sort of data transmission error.” Arda glanced at him. “You’re getting yourself worked up over nothing.”

“Nope, I just crosschecked,” Tony replied. “This is legit data. If anything, there are some problems with the checksums on the original data, but who cares? There’s something making this comet change course, Arda, and that’s the mystery. Maybe all those old theories about a close brown dwarf star out there are true?”

Arda scoffed. “People have been looking for a brown dwarf close to the Solar System for centuries now, and they’ve turned up nothing. And suddenly, you think you’ve found Nemesis in some random data check? Don’t you know how unlikely that is?”

“Unlikely isn’t the same thing as wrong.” Tony gestured at another data window, depicting multiple overlapping orbits of different objects. “But I don’t think I’ve found Nemesis. I think I’ve found something else.”

Arda waited for a moment. “What?”

“This…thing.” Tony pointed to another dot on the window. “This makes it even weirder.”

“What’s that?” Arda tilted his head and squinted. “That’s really small.”

“Super-small,” Tony turned slowly to face the other student. “The historical data from the last couple of weeks has caught a few brief periods of intense thermal activity. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s a ship.”

“A ship?” Arda shook his head. “A ship twice as far out as the farthest human settlement in the Solar System? Why would anyone bother flying out that far? A ship way past the HTP?”

“Yes.” Tony looked down for a moment and nodded as he worked through the possibilities. “If they’d done most of their primary burns before getting there, it’d be very hard to spot them that far out. It’s like you said; they’re well past anything with a lot of sensors. It’s easy to get lost out there.”

“But what…why?” Arda rubbed his temples. “Getting that far out might take a year or two, and that’s one way.” He pointed to another dot on the orbital graph. “Sedna’s not even in a good position relative to your phantom ship, so it’s not like they could top off their supplies. And why travel for potentially years just to land on a comet? Why not just wait until one came in closer and then land like people have done tons of times? This comet might be a super long-period, but it’s not special.”

“Except for the mysterious course changes.” Tony took a deep breath and held his hands in front of his chest. “Now, hear me out before you say I’m crazy.”

Arda groaned. “This is going to be painful, isn’t it?”

“There are no unusual emissions or readings in any of the spectra with the comet, but those changes don’t look like reactions to a star or a black hole.” Tony lowered his voice to a near-whisper. “It looks more like a ship doing course corrections.”

Arda looked at a calendar on his screen. “It’s April 1st.” He turned to Tony, narrowing his eyes. “Is this another stupid American April’s Fool prank?”

“This isn’t a prank.” Tony stood, his gaze locked on the orbital path display. “This is a huge scientific discovery. I bet you it is a ship!”

“But according to this data, this comet’s been tracked for almost two hundred years.”

Tony nodded. “Yeah. So? This is the first time it’s demonstrated any movements like that.”

“How could it be a ship then? It’s coming toward Earth, not away, and the spectral analysis suggests a comet.”

“I don’t know. It’s got to be alien,” Tony snapped. “Probably the Leems. Maybe they crashed into a comet or something and they died, but the automated system is still providing some thrust. Even if we don’t rewrite the first contact story, we can contribute to history.”

Arda chuckled. “You should have majored in history, not astronomy.”

“Oh, crap.” Tony’s eyes widened. “I didn’t even think through the implications.”

Arda glanced at the data, his brow furrowing in concern. “What implications?”

“The other ship,” Tony replied. He gestured widely.

“Let’s pretend there’s a mysterious ship flying out to an even more mysterious alien ship. What about it?”

“Don’t you get it? Somebody already knows.” Tony slapped his forehead. “It’s a ship or a probe.” He brought up another virtual keyboard and didn’t speak for a minute while he typed intensely. “Great. Just great.”

A new data window appeared, displaying the motion of the comet and the smaller object. According to the simulation, without additional course changes, the smaller object would intercept the larger object in under two months.

“Wait.” Arda shook a finger. “Somebody already knows about it? And they knew long enough ago to send a ship or a probe out a year or two in advance?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?” Tony grimaced. “But I haven’t heard anything about it. Why wouldn’t they want this all over the literature? Why isn’t it on the news?”

“Because they’re worried about being wrong,” Arda concluded. “If it’s not a ship, and they talked about it being a ship, and then their probe got there and it’s just another comet, they’d look like idiots.”

“You know what? Let’s hit the literature, but don’t ask around on the net. We don’t want someone to poach our discovery. If whoever is flying out there didn’t publish, that’s their own fault.”

“You sure?” Arda asked. “We can’t even be sure ourselves.”

“So what?” Tony replied. “We could also be sitting on a major scientific discovery that will rewrite the history books.”

“I don’t know about that.” Arda sighed, and his shoulders slumped in defeat. “If somebody else already has a probe out there—”

“It’s not a probe,” Tony insisted.

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because the size and spectra are off. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to filter out ships or probes from observation data. It’s just the first time I’ve had to deal with one that far out.”

Arda nodded, thinking it through. “Fine, so it’s a ship, but then somebody had the money to send an entire crewed ship out there.”

“That means it’s all the more likely there is some old Leem ship with a busted hyperspace drive sitting there.” Tony made a fist. “It doesn’t matter if they’re there first. They don’t want to publish, right? If we collect enough information, we can publish first. We’ll get the credit for the discovery. If it’s not published in a journal, it might as well not exist.”

He eyed the data, chuckling over the irony of his earlier complaints. “Thanks, Sophia Vand. I hope you’re having a good time wherever you are. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here right now, about to change history.”

________________________

Woot Woot! This is getting interesting. Wait until the info about Sophia comes out. LOL Maybe I shouldn't laugh about that one? But man, I'm very curious about who's out there and what's going on with that comet!

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