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Procyon's Promise — An Excerpt

Julius Gruenmeier scowled as Achilles, the largest asteroid in the leading Trojan group, grew  steadily larger through the bubble of the supply boat. He watched as the domes, observation instruments, and communications gear of the System Institute for the Advancement of Astronomical Observation -- SIAAO for short -- slowly rose into view over Achilles' jagged horizon. Achilles Observatory (along with its twin on Aeneas asteroid in the trailing Trojans) looked farther out into space than any other observatory in the solar system. When Achilles and Aeneas were working in concert, they anchored both ends of a 1.3 billion kilometer long baseline -- far enough to be able to separate binary stars in the Andromeda galaxy into their component parts.

Not that they would be able to maintain that capability for long. Gruenmeier, in his role as Achilles' Operations Manager, was returning from a meeting with the SIAAO comptroller. The occasion was the comptroller's yearly trip out from Earth, and the subject -- next year's operating budget. The news was bad.

It was common knowledge that the Institute had made some unwise investments in the last several years. What no one outside the Board of Trustees had known was just how shaky finances really were. They knew now. Operating budgets were to be cut drastically over the next three years until the Institute's portfolio could be returned to its former state of health. The cuts were sufficiently deep that Gruenmeier didn't see how he would be able to keep both Achilles and Aeneas operating.

He was still pondering ways to slash expenses without idling any prime instruments when the supply boat entered Main Dome's Number Three Airlock. Gruenmeier thanked the boat's two young pilots absentmindedly, unstrapped, and pulled himself to the coffin-sized airlock amidships. Since the terminal was inside the dome itself, there was no need to suit up. He exited the ship, grabbed hold of one of the guide cables that crisscrossed the terminal decking, and pulled himself toward the passenger lounge.

He was met by his assistant, Chala Arnam. Arnam was an intense woman in her mid-forties, a fair-to-middling neutrino astronomer, and the best administrative assistant he'd ever had. He was grooming her to take over Institute operations on that inevitable day the Trustees forced him into retirement. He hoped there would be something to leave her when the time came.

"How did it go?" she asked.

"Not good," he answered.

She studied his dour expression intently, trying to read the degree of disaster there. "How bad is it?"

He sighed. "Very. They aren't cutting out fat this time. They're amputating our whole lower torso."

"Are we going to fight?"

"How?"

"We could appeal directly to the Trustees."

"Simonson suggested that we do so. But you and I both know that his orders come directly from them, so what's the use? Besides, even if some of them were willing to listen, there's the distance problem to overcome. We're 800 million kilometers from home out here. The damned accountants are just down the hall."

"Perhaps you should plan a trip to Earth, Julius."

"I've thought of that, and just might do it if we can come up with a viable approach." He chewed on his lower lip as he always did when he was worried, and then abruptly changed the subject. "Anything interesting happen here while I was gone?"

"Not much," Chala said. "Doctor Chandidibya was in to see me this morning."

"Let me guess. He was raising a stink about not being able to monopolize the Big Ear, right?"

"Not this time. He complained about the service techs. Says they're doing their usual slipshod job. He thinks the whole lot of them should be fired."

"Does he have any suggestions as to how we can attract better people on the salaries we pay?"

"I doubt if Dr. Chandidibya cares about minor problems like personnel staffing and retention -- unless they adversely affect the operation of the thousand-meter-radioscope, of course."

"How'd you leave him?"

"Grumpy."

"I'll try to soothe him at dinner. Anything else?"

Chala nodded. "The technical staff has been going crazy searching for a malfunction in the high energy monitoring equipment for the last two hours."

"What kind of malfunction?"

"They seem to be getting a ghost image of some sort. They've tried everything and it won't go away."

"Ghost?" Gruenmeier asked, suddenly happy to have something to think about other than the state of the Institute's dismal finances.

"I'd best let Doctor Bartlett explain it. As you well know, high energy optics ain't my field."

Ten minutes later, Director Gruenmeier found himself listening to the explanation of the Watch Astronomer.

"We first began picking it up on the cosmic ray monitors at 16:12, shortly after the start of Second Watch. The monitors kept insisting that they had spotted a diffuse source of cosmic rays somewhere out beyond Neptune. We ran the usual maintenance checks and found nothing, so I ordered the neutrino scopes and X-ray equipment to take a look. They can see it, too."

"What makes you think it's a ghost then?"

"Because there isn't anything out there! Besides which, the source is moving."

"Moving?"

"Yes, sir. Moving fast. It appears to be traveling radially outward from the Sun."

"Have you asked Aeneas to do a parallax measurement?"

"Yes, sir. Two-and-a-half hours ago. I expect their reply momentarily ..." As though to punctuate Bartlett's comment, several readout screens chose that moment to begin displaying data. The half dozen people in the Operations Center turned to watch."

"Well, I'll be damned!" Bartlett muttered incredulously a few seconds later. "They see it too."

"Have you got a velocity vector yet?" Gruenmeier asked.

The Watch Astronomer nodded, and then hesitated as he read the figures silently. He looked up at Gruenmeier and gulped. "It says here that the radiation source is moving directly away from the sun, toward Canis Minor, sir. The exact coordinates are: Right Ascension, 0738; Declination, plus 0518. And get this. Whatever it is, it's moving at exactly the speed of light!"

Gruenmeier blinked. "It's moving away from the sun?"

"Yes, sir."

Gruenmeier turned to Chala Arnam. "Get me a top priority line to Earth. I'll be sending a coded message to the Board of Trustees in about ten minutes."

He turned back to Bartlett. "Get that data reduced fast. I want everything you can deduce about the source in the next five minutes. I'll need it for my squirt to Earth. I also want every instrument we've got focused on this contact. Aeneas, too. Understood?"

Gruenmeier stopped, suddenly aware of the expressions of his subordinates. "What's the matter with you two? Hop to it!"

Chala frowned. "What's the matter, Julius? What is it?"

"Don't you see? We've got a phantom source of high energy particles moving away from the sun at 300,000 kps on a vector straight toward Procyon. That can mean only one thing.

Chala blinked. "What?"

"The Probe Expedition. They're 180 years overdue, but by God, they've finally come home!"

 

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Page last edited on November 13, 2010 03:23 PM