Procyon's Promise [Secure eReader]
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eBook by Michael McCollum
eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: Three hundred years is a long time to keep a promise. But a promise was made. A promise to seek the knowledge of faster than light travel. While the world has forgotten its charge, the descendants of the original explorers do not. They will overcome whatever problems arise in their quest to fulfill the promise made between the Life Probe and humanity long before they existed.
eBook Publisher: JABberwocky Literary Agency
Fictionwise Release Date: May 2000
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Henning's Roost was renowned throughout the solar system. Its reputation stretched from the intermittently molten plains of Mercury to the helium lakes of Pluto, from the upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere to the subterranean settlements burrowed deeply into the red surface of Mars' dusty plains. Wherever men and women worked at hard or dangerous jobs, wherever boredom and terror were normal components of life, The Roost was a standard subject of conversation.
Henning's was a pleasure satellite, the largest ever built. Its owners had placed it in solar orbit ten million kilometers in front of Earth. There was a story told of a spaceman who had arrived at The Roost with a year's accumulated pay in his pocket, stayed ten days, left flat broke, and pronounced himself well satisfied. It was a testimonial to the diversions provided by Henning's management that the story was widely accepted as completely reasonable. Besides which, it was true.
Be that as it may, Chryse Haller was bored.
Chryse had arrived at The Roost two weeks earlier for her first vacation in three years. She had plunged immediately into the social whirl, sampling most of the diversions that weren't ultimately harmful to one's health. She had played chemin de fir, blackjack, poker, roulette, and seven card stapo on the gaming decks. Later, she had enlisted as a centurion in a Roman Legion on the Sensie-Gamer deck and slogged for two days through the damp chill of a simulated Gaul. Her first battle convinced her that the difference between ancient warfare and a modern butcher shop is mostly a matter of attitude, and she began to cast around for new diversions.
She turned to the most traditional sport of all, availing herself of the large pool of male companionship - both professional and tourist - which The Roost had to offer. The previous evening she'd attended the nightly Bacchanal on Beta Deck. That had been a mistake She'd become involved with a handsome young man whose only goal was to please her. Yet, in spite of the soft lights, the rich smell of incense, and the warm glow of two drinks within her; she found herself losing interest with each passing moment. She'd ended up watching simulated clouds scud across a simulated sky. Afterwards, she made her excuses and left early.
There was no doubt about it. Lotus eating was definitely beginning to pall.
Playing with a fruit bowl, Chryse now sat alone in a breakfast nook pondering the curious emotional state into which she had fallen. Her reflection stared dully back at her from the polished depths of the table. The image was that of a woman in her early thirties, blonde, with shoulder length hair that framed a wide, honest face. The eyes were set wide apart above high cheekbones, a nose that seemed a trifle small, and a mouth just then twisted into a slight scowl. The eyes were brown in the simulated mahogany of the table, but green in actuality.
"Tenth-stellar for your thoughts."
Chryse looked up to find Roland Scott standing over her. Roland had been a member of her section in the Gaul campaign. They had mustered out together and she had taken him as a lover that same night. He'd been good for her psyche and they'd spent three glorious days together before she suffered the minor disappointment of discovering that he was a Roost employee.
"Why so glum?" he asked.
"Just a little tired, I guess."
"Anything I can do to help?"
She shook her head. "I'm afraid there's no cure for what ails me. You may have a seat if you like, though."
He quickly slid into the opposite side of the booth. "Maybe it would help to talk about it."
She smiled wanly at him, recognizing his automatic response to a professional challenge. Still, Roland really cared. He was paid to care. Of course, that was part of the problem.
"It's this place," she said, glumly.
"What about it?"
"It depresses me."
His face acquired a look of surprise. "The Big Boss isn't going to like hearing that. He's put billions into The Roost. No one is supposed to be unhappy here, least of all Chryse Lawrence Haller."
"You weren't listening. I didn't say I was unhappy. I said I was depressed. Different emotion entirely."
"If you say so."
"Look around you, Roland. What do you see?"
"What am I supposed to see?"
"Have you ever looked closely at your clientele?"
He made a show of scanning the restaurant. "Okay, I've looked."
"You've got a good cross-section of humanity here. Both sexes, all shapes and sizes, every color. Yet, in spite of our differences, we all have something in common."
"Sure," Roland said, nodding. "You're all richer than anyone has a right to be. If you weren't, you could never afford us."
"True," Chryse said. "I hadn't thought of that. Hmmm, that makes things even worse!"
"Can't you see it? All your clients are compulsive personalities."
"Aren't you being a bit hard on yourself and the other guests?"
"If anything, I'm not being hard enough. We're all on holiday, yet each of us is so desperate for diversion that we play ourselves into exhaustion."
"Considering the cost," Roland said, "can you blame anyone?"
"I suppose that explains a few cases. But take old Joshua Voichek over there," she said, gesturing toward a spry centenarian seated at a breakfast nook halfway across the compartment. "After my father, he's probably the richest man in the system. He could spend a lifetime in The Roost without making a dent in his fortune. Yet, he wears himself out as quickly as the salesman who saves a dozen years to come here."
"Your theory, Madame Psychotherapist?" he asked, trying to lighten the mood.
"We're bored with life. The sense of adventure has gone out of us. There aren't any frontiers left. No one climbs Mount Everest anymore."
Roland chuckled. "Why should they? If you want to reach the Everest Summit Hotel, you board an airtram in Nepal. They leave every half hour."
"Exactly! Where can you go in the solar system where you won't find someone else's boot prints?"
Roland shrugged, but did not answer.
"Know what I think? I think the human race is suffering from claustrophobia. We've learned the awful truth that there are limits beyond which we cannot go, so we invent places like this to help us forget."
"Isn't that quite a lot to blame on an overpriced whorehouse?"
She looked at him sharply, suddenly aware of the undercurrent of anger in his voice. "A trained entertainment specialist isn't a whore, Roland."
He raised one eyebrow quizzically. "Perhaps you can explain the difference to me sometime."
"I didn't mean to insult you. Put it down to overwork. Forgive me?"
"You don't need my forgiveness. You can have me fired anytime you feel like it."
"I guess I deserved that," she said. She let her gaze slip from his angry face and move to the viewscreen at the end of the small restaurant. The view was from a remote camera somewhere out on the hull. It showed a jumble of I-beams, pressure spheres, and hull plates framed by the black of space. "Let's change the subject before we have an argument. I've been staring at that thing all morning. What is it?"
He turned to follow her gaze. "Just an old worker dormitory used during The Roost's construction. It's abandoned now, of course."
"I would think the owners would keep local space clear of all such hazards to navigation. Wouldn't be very good publicity for a shipload of tourists to run into that heap on approach."
He shook his head. "It isn't as ramshackle as it appears. Look closely. See the thruster cluster jutting out near the airlock? There are twenty more scattered over the hull. That hulk and a half dozen others are slaved to the Roost's central computer."
"Sounds like a lot of trouble to go to for a junkyard," Chryse said.
"It's part of the service. The hulks make good destinations for clients with a yen to explore the mysteries of space."
He laughed, his pique suddenly forgotten. "Haven't you ever skin dived on a sunken ship?"
She shook her head.
"How about going up to Zeta Deck then? They've got a near perfect simulation of the Esmeralda there. That was a Spanish galleon that sunk off Key West in the Sixteenth Century. They took sixty million stellars worth of treasure out of her back in the thirties."
Chryse shook her head. "I'm tired of simulated adventure."
He smiled, turning on the boyish charm. "That's the reason for the hulks. They're the real thing. We could check out two vacsuits at North Pole Terminus and make a day long picnic of it if you like."
She shook her head. The idea of exploring a twenty-year-old work barge didn't appeal to her, but Roland's suggestion had tweaked a stray memory. There was something in solar orbit she would very much like to explore.
"Do they rent ships at North Terminus, as well?"
"No need. The maneuvering gear on the vacsuits is first rate and well maintained. Oh, they'll rent you a scooter if you want, but that costs extra."
"I don't want a scooter. I want a ship! Something with legs."
"I can afford it."
He shrugged. "There are a few rental jobs at North Terminus. I'm a fair-to-middlin' pilot. I'll take you anywhere you want to go."
"No thank you. Where I want to go, I'd rather be alone. Maybe a bit of solitude will snap me out of this mood I've fallen into."
"Solo piloting is dangerous."
"I'll be all right," she said. "After all, the computer runs the ship. If I get into trouble, it'll scream for help, won't it?"
He nodded. "Okay, it's your neck. You'll have to sign a release, of course."
"Where are you going?"
"I thought that I would go see the probe."
* * *
Three hundred years earlier, a spacecraft had entered the solar system from the depths of interstellar space. Limited two-way communications were established almost immediately, and it was quickly learned that the craft was an instrument package controlled by a self-aware computer.
The computer, which called itself PROBE, had been constructed by an advanced race of beings, that it dubbed "The Makers." These Makers had been working to develop a faster-than-light drive for their spaceships for thousands of years. In all that vast time, they had been singularly unsuccessful. So, faced with dwindling resources at home and desperate to break free to the stars, they had hit upon the idea of sending life probes to the surrounding stars to make contact with other advanced species. Once a probe arrived in a strange stellar system, it bargained with its hosts to exchange their scientific knowledge for that of the Makers. When it had learned all it could, the probe returned home to add its cargo to the ever-growing pool of Maker knowledge. It was through this slow accumulation of the wisdom of many races that the Makers hoped to eventually break free of the star that had become their jailer.
Over the centuries, thousands of life probes had been launched outbound from the Maker sun. They cruised at speeds approaching ten percent that of light, taking centuries to complete their journeys. While they traveled, they listened to the cosmos, ever alert for the energy discharges that betrayed the presence of a technologically advanced civilization.
Life Probe 53935 had been unlucky. For ten millennia it had searched for intelligence among the stars and not found it. And even when it finally pricked an expanding bubble of human radio noise, it wasn't sure that its luck had changed. For humankind was low on the Maker scale of civilization, perhaps too low to be of use to a life probe in need of an overhaul. The probe had considered the problem of human capabilities for months while it fell toward the Sun. Finally, at almost the last moment possible, fate had intervened to make the probe's decision for it.
One hypothesis common to all FTL theories was that a vessel traveling at superlight velocity would be detectable in the sublight universe. Theoretically, any material object moving faster-than-light will create a shock wave in the interstellar medium, a wave that appears to an outside observer as a source of highly energetic, Cherenkov radiation.
For a hundred thousand years the Makers and their far-flung probes had scanned the skies, searching for just such a phenomenon. They had done so in vain until, in the human year 2065 AD, just as it was approaching the solar system, the hyperwave detectors aboard Life Probe 53935 began clamoring for attention. An intense source of radiation that closely mirrored the hypothetical properties of a starship's wake had been spotted in the Procyon system a mere twelve light-years beyond Sol. The age-old dream of the Makers seemed finally at hand.
Except, there was a problem.
The struggle to climb to thirty thousand kilometers-per-second cruising velocity had cost the probe dearly in terms of fuel. To slow its headlong rush at journey's end would cost more, leaving its tanks virtually dry. The probe had no fuel reserves with which to change course.
It studied its options carefully. The only sure way of reaching Procyon was a journey of two stages. The first stage required stopping in the solar system to obtain new fuel stocks and a general overhaul of its tired mechanisms. Once returned to a spaceworthy condition, the probe could launch outbound directly for the Procyon system. The journey would last more than a century, but to a ten-thousand-year-old machine, such a trip was a mere local jaunt.
Thus, humanity owed its first visitation from the stars not to any accomplishment of its own, but to the fact that Earth was a natural way station on the way to more interesting vistas.
* * *
Chryse Haller sat at the controls of the rented daycruiser and finished off the sandwich she had made in the tiny galley aft of the control room. She was some fifty-two hours out from Henning's Roost, and decelerating for rendezvous, when the ship's computer interrupted the soft music that filled the cabin.
"We are being challenged."
Chryse leaned forward, her manner suddenly alert. "Identify challenger."
"Automated Guard Station, Department of Antiquities Registration Number 7155."
"Put it on the speaker."
"...WARNING. WARNING. YOU ARE APPROACHING THE RESTRICTED ZONE OF A PROTECTED HISTORIC MONUMENT. YOU ARE HEREBY ADVISED TO TURN BACK IMMEDIATELY. FAILURE TO COMPLY MAY LEAD TO CIVIL OR CRIMINAL PENALTIES BEING ASSESSED AGAINST YOU. WARNING ..."
"Ready to transmit."
"Attention, Guard Station 7155. I am Chryse Lawrence Haller, Ident MZH-93587116. I am countermanding you. Return to standby mode."
"ORDER RECEIVED AND ACKNOWLEDGED. RETURNING TO STANDBY. BE ADVISED, CITIZEN HALLER, THAT YOUR ACTIVITIES WITHIN THE BOUNDARIES OF THIS PROTECTED HISTORIC MONUMENT WILL BE MONITORED. ANY ATTEMPT TO DAMAGE OR DEFACE THE MONUMENT WILL BE IMMEDIATELY REPORTED TO EARTH."
"Acknowledged," Chryse said. She called for library function from the computer. "Reference: Life probe, visitation of same. Reference date: Twenty first Century."
"Show me a picture."
A thirty-centimeter, translucent black cube materialized in front of her. Centered in the body of the cube, filling its interior, was a mighty spacecraft. Its structure consisted of two spheres - each two hundred meters in diameter - connected by a long central column. One sphere, labeled CONTROL SECTION in the hologram, was an open latticework of small beams arranged in the familiar pattern of geodesic trusses. There were gaps in the sphere where bits and pieces of machinery poked through, but it was otherwise whole. Arrayed around it were a number of long booms tipped with irregularly shaped sensing mechanisms.
Chryse shifted her attention to the sphere labeled DRIVE SECTION. As she did so, she let her gaze sweep along the full eight hundred meters of the probe's length. A number of long cylindrical tanks were strapped to the thrust frame between the two major spheres. The drive sphere at the probe's stern was much more massive than the control sphere at its prow. The framework of beams was heavier, giving an impression of massive strength. And the sphere itself was more densely crammed with machinery. Chryse recognized the central bulge of a mass converter and the familiar shape of an electromagnetic nozzle among the unfamiliar bits and pieces of alien machinery.
"Big, isn't it?" she muttered out loud.
"Null program. Please repeat," the computer responded.
"Cancel," Chryse said absentmindedly. Her eyes were suddenly drawn to a bright, starlike point inside the cube. "Center on Coordinates X-3, Y-5, Z-2. Expand view one hundred times."
The view moved to one side and expanded to resolve the spark of light into a spacecraft whose hull reflected sunlight directly into the camera's lens. The ship was an antique model that hadn't been seen in the solar system in nearly three centuries.
"Now, let's see where we're going. Show me our destination in real time."
At first the view seemed to be the same as before, with the exception that the speck of light was gone and the viewing angle caused the probe to be considerably foreshortened. The daycruiser was approaching at a thirty-degree angle to the probe's major axis, with the control sphere closer than the drive sphere. Chryse called for a close up view.
The awesome machine, that she had viewed in its splendor just seconds earlier, was no longer hale or whole. As every schoolchild learned before they were ten, the probe had fallen victim to the most celebrated incident of treachery in the history of the human race. Chryse gazed at the wreck in the holocube and felt a tug of remorse at what her people had done.
The evidence of the catastrophe was everywhere and unmistakable. The perfect sphere of the control section had been caved in on one side, as though smashed by a giant fist. Opposite the blow, the sphere bulged noticeably outward, stretched nearly to the bursting point by an irresistible force. Large sections of interior structure had been vaporized in a titanic explosion and a twisted forest of support beams - transformed into odd shapes by the force of the blast - gave the play of sunlight and shadow inside the probe a surrealistic quality.
Chryse gulped. "I had no idea," she said. It was only then that she realized she had been holding her breath.
Not everyone, it seemed, had been happy with the discovery of the alien spacecraft on the edge of the solar system. Most objections had come from the newly industrialized nations of the Southern Hemisphere, each of which saw the probe and its cargo of knowledge as a threat to their hard-earned equality. It was felt that the older, longer industrialized nations of the north would be better equipped to use the advanced knowledge that the probe carried. The nation that emerged as leader of the opposition was the Pan-African Federation.
The struggle had been wholly political at first. A resolution welcoming the probe into the system was introduced into the General Assembly of the old United Nations. The Pan-Africans and their allies fought skillfully against it, but when it came time to vote, the southerners found themselves on the losing side of the tally. By the narrowest of margins, the resolution passed. Five months later, the probe took up a parking orbit around the Sun.
Negotiations between the probe and the UN began immediately. The complexities involved in arranging for both the probe's overhaul and the exchange of scientific knowledge were considerable. Before any agreements could be reached, there was much to learn on both sides. To speed the negotiations, the probe had split off a portion of its circuits to form a separate personality. This new entity, which the probe dubbed SURROGATE, was intended to act as translator between the probe and its hosts.
Shortly after the probe's arrival in the solar system, six Pan African spacecraft attacked humanity's first visitor from the stars. Two outgunned UN defenders and the probe itself met them. All six attackers were destroyed in a hard fought battle, but not before they were able to unleash an irresistible weapon against their target.
In the twenty-first century as in the twenty-fourth, ships of deep space were powered by tiny antimatter black holes known as I-masses. Human civilization was built on the limitless energy they provided. They lit man's cities, smelted his ores, and drove his spacecraft. And when the Pan-African warships attacked the probe, they were used for the first time as deadly weapons.
Each marauding warship took great care with its approach to the scene of battle, placing itself on a precise trajectory for the probe. And even though each attacker was eventually destroyed before it could reach the target, the probe found itself the focal point of six converging I-masses.
Two reached their mark.
The primary probe personality was destroyed, but SURROGATE - housed at the end of one of the long sensor booms - survived. Even so, the age-old dream of the Makers seemed at an end. Damaged as it was, SURROGATE had no hope of reaching the FTL civilization around Procyon. Worse, the impact of the I-masses had destroyed all record of the Makers. The surviving probe personality possessed no single iota of knowledge concerning its creators, their history, their language, or the location of their star in space.
Out of this situation had come a bargain born of desperation. Since SURROGATE needed to secure the secret of FTL for the Makers, and humanity needed the Maker knowledge that had survived the attack, each party agreed to help the other. For its part, the UN agreed to build a slower-than-light starship and man it with a crew of ten thousand. When the ship was completed, the circuits that housed SURROGATE were placed aboard, and the ship headed out on the century long trip to Procyon. In exchange, SURROGATE agreed to share its vast library of knowledge.
The Procyon mission was launched outbound early in 2096. Allotting a century for the journey, and an additional decade for the crew to bargain for the secret of FTL with whatever native race they discovered, the expedition was expected to return to the solar system (by FTL starship) no later than 2205.
They were now 183 years overdue.
Copyright © 1987, 1998 by Michael McCollum