Gibraltar Stars — An Excerpt
Lieutenant Barbara Whalen sat strapped into the control station of her scout boat and watched the blue-white orb with two largish moons grow slowly in her forward bubble. Like all terrestrial worlds, it was a beautiful sight, especially after so long in the deep black. There was a large polar mass in the southern hemisphere (a designation assigned after observing the planet’s direction of rotation and applying an ancient standard known as the Right Hand Rule). In the daylight hemisphere, a massive arrowhead-shaped continent of tans and browns and umber ploughed through an azure sea, its edges tinged aquamarine by extensive shoals on its southern flank. Over everything lay a bright white swirl of clouds blown west to east by stratospheric winds. Lower than the continent, nearly out of sight around the curve of the planet, mirror cyclones moved in tandem on each side of the invisible equator.
As Earthlike as Vrath seemed from a hundred thousand kilometers out in space, there was one obvious difference between it and the Mother of Men. From Barbara’s perspective, fully one-quarter of the globe lay in darkness. Yet, throughout the night hemisphere, there was no sign of civilization. No cityscapes outlined the shores of invisible land masses, nor sprawled across darkened plains, nor meandered along both banks of mighty rivers. The blackness was unrelieved, save for bands of lightning flashes marking thunderstorms.
“Pretty,” Amos Harding, Barbara’s second-in-command, said from the acceleration couch beside her.
“Very,” she agreed. “It makes me homesick.”
“I wouldn’t settle down there were I you,” he replied. “We’re getting diffuse gamma ray readings all across the face of the globe.”
“What sort of gamma rays?”
“Looks like Cobalt 60 mostly. Some other nasty stuff mixed in.”
“You can say that again. Whatever they did to piss off the Broa, it had to be major for the whole planet to be this hot a full century after the fact.”
“Radiation too hot for an upper atmospheric pass?”
“Not if we dip in fast, get our air sample, then get out fast.”
Barbara and Amos’s mission was to scout out the main planet of this system and record its condition. The scout boat’s cargo compartment was chock full of long range sensors that would record the surface destruction during their dip into atmosphere.
“We’ve got something coming up fast on the lidar,” Ahmed Quereshi, their sensor operator, announced from the scout boat’s passenger compartment.
“What is it, Med?”
“Looks like a space station, Lieutenant. Big mother, too! I’ve got the telescope extended and have it in my cross-hairs. Ready to record.”
“Any chance of collision?” she asked, noting that the blip representing the station was very close to the red line marking their future course.
“No, ma’am. Definite cross-plot velocity on the object. Looks to be three milli-arcseconds per second lateral drift to the right. We’ll close to about twenty kilometers at minimum distance.”
“All recorders to max ten seconds before min approach,” she ordered. “Let’s get a good look, but save most of our storage capacity for the real deal.”
“Aye aye, ma’am,” the operator replied. His tone only hinted at what he thought about a mere taxi driver instructing him as to how to do his job.
Ten minutes later, a small black speck took a bite out of the fuzzy limb of the planet. The speck grew perceptibly as they watched. In a few minutes, it covered nearly the daylight hemisphere of the planet and was a speck no longer.
The basic shape of the space station was that of an ovoid, a cosmic violet egg. The station had once had a smooth hull, with none of the jumble of pipes and antennae with which humans cluttered up the exteriors of their space stations. The hull was smooth no longer.
Several gaping holes had been punched into its surface and the contents spewed out. As they closed the range, the deep wells of destruction showed chaos extending several decks downward. Whatever had penetrated the station had burrowed deep, leaving behind bent girders, buckled decks, spaghetti-like strands of cabling, and other less identifiable detritus.
“Uh, Lieutenant,” Amos Harding said, “you don’t suppose those holes produced debris geysers when they were made, do you?”
“Looks like it to me,” she replied. The station was coming up fast. It would fully fill the forward bubble in another thirty seconds, although it was beginning to slide ever so slowly to the right as it did so. “Why?”
“Do you think it’s smart for us to make a high speed run this close to that pile of junk? No telling what pieces got ejected and may have found their way back due to mutual gravitational attraction in the last hundred years.”
“A fine time to think about that,” she muttered as she braced unconsciously for impact. The reaction was as useless as it was natural. If they hit even a walnut at the speed they were going, they would be vaporized before their optic nerves had time to send the news to their brains.
Suddenly it was on them and flashed by in a single blink. Once again, the planet filled the forward bubble, unobstructed by sky junk.
Barbara Whalen let out the breath she had been holding, as did Amos. They turned to one another and shared a look which said, “Let’s not do that again!”
Their silent dialogue was cut short by a whoop from the passenger compartment, one audible by both intercom and through the closed hatch.
“What’s the matter,” Barbara demanded.
“That got the old adrenaline pumping,” Ahmed said in her earphones. “Can we go again, Mommy?”
Vrathalatar, the planet, filled the screens and no longer resembled a mottled, blue-white tennis ball in the forward bubble of Barbara Whalen’s scout boat. They were flying upside down, with the planet above their heads and approaching quickly. The dorsal airlock was open and the quartz heat shield extended to plug the opening. Centimeters beneath the transparent surface, the lenses of three separate telescopes peered at the tan surface below; seeking the black splotch of something that had once been a city sprawled across the width of a wide river valley.
Barbara watched on her screen as the destruction slowly made itself evident. As she watched, a transient glow flashed momentarily across her field of view, and then flickered in and out of the scene. Simultaneously, a tug at her body and an almost supersonic squeal at the edge of hearing announced their arrival at Vrathalatar’s first tenuous wisps of atmosphere.
“Reentry!” Amos Harding announced.
“Noted,” Barbara responded, her eyes not leaving the screen.
Below them, the camera followed the course of a
river as wide as the
Slowly, as the tug and whistle of atmosphere outside the hull built up, the tan wasteland gave way to a wasteland of a different sort. Structures began to slide into view. These came in a variety of shapes, although spheres dominated. They weren’t complete spheres, to judge by shadows, but rather spherical shapes with one-third or so buried in the ground. The effect was like looking down on the sand trap of a particularly difficult golf course, one that had not been cleaned of lost balls in a century.
If the Vrath had any need for the roads with which human beings festoon their cities, there was no evidence of it. Rather, their structures seemed haphazardly strewn about the landscape, or possibly arranged in a larger pattern that the camera was too focused to see.
As the partially buried spheres and other geometric shapes marched slowly from top of screen to bottom, a slow change came over the city. They began to see places where buildings had once stood, but which now showed as pits in the landscape, or piles of disorganized rubble. If there had been fire here, the intervening years had wiped away the traces. There were no blackened splotches where mighty buildings had once stood. Rather, everything was the same sand color as the denuded countryside.
“We’re picking up some damage,” Amos announced.
“Think so?” Barbara asked, wryly.
For on the screen, the edge of a large circular structure had appeared. On another world it might have been the remains of the city’s central lake. Not here. The cause for the increasing level of destruction as their view swept across the city center became clear.
Whatever city they were spying on had died by nuclear fire. Within a few seconds, their view swept across a giant crater. Here the Broa must have been aiming for something buried … possibly an underground command bunker. For the warhead had dug deep into the surface before exploding, leaving a bowl-like depression with steep sides and a pool of water glistening at its bottom.
“Wow, they must really have been pissed!” Ahmed said over the intercom. In addition to the main view, he was monitoring the rest of the instruments that were recording the destruction.
“How’s the radiation?” Barbara asked.
“Not as bad as projected,” the technician replied over the intercom. “We can take this for hours without reaching maximum safe dose.”
“Well, we only have about three more minutes,” she replied, eyeing her chronometer.
Below them, the crater fell behind and the camera swept over new destruction. Where things had tended to topple over in the direction of the bottom of the screen earlier, now that they had passed over the epicenter of the blast, they were all pointed at the top of the screen.
They passed back into barren wasteland once more. Ahmed sent the telescope hunting for another target. This was a major metropolis on the coast that had received three warheads. Here the landscape was littered with small rectangular shapes that, upon close telescopic examination, appeared to be the remains of vehicles that had fallen from the sky when the power was interrupted.
They watched in silence, suddenly aware of the magnitude of what it means to kill an entire world. It was a chastened crew that found themselves once more back in space and climbing for the deep black.
“Get what we needed?” Barbara asked, her tone subdued by what she had seen.
“We’ve got full memory cubes,” Ahmed replied.
After a minute of silence, Amos said, “Damn the Broa. That was a living, breathing world back there.”
Beside him, Barbara Whelan sighed as she punched up the program that would return them to the fleet.
“Just pray that some alien explorer doesn’t make a similar camera run over Earth sometime next century.”