The Sails of Tau Ceti — An Excerpt
The control room was crowded for the final approach. Garth and Tory continued strapped into their couches, while Kit and Eli floated behind them. The two observers had anchored themselves to handy stanchions in an attempt to keep out of the way.
"See anything?" Kit asked.
"Not yet," Tory answered over her shoulder. Tory had the telescope slowly scanning the point in space where the starship was located. They were closing with the alien craft at a few hundred kilometers per hour, and from a direction well removed from the ionization laser’s cone of operation.
"There!" Eli shouted.
"Where?" Garth snapped.
"Lower right hand quadrant. Just above the edge of the sail."
Tory looked to where he directed. Sure enough, something glinted where there had been no star a few seconds earlier. Coming in from the flank as they were, the sail showed a limb like a planet. Despite their proximity, however, the shroud lines remained invisible to all but the sensors.
"Can’t. We’re at maximum already."
"All right. Keep the scope trained on that spot."
The object on the screen began to take shape slowly. The sliver was transformed over several minutes into a bullet shape. A minute later, the bullet became two shapes — a large cylinder and a smaller sphere.
Garth gave the order to paint the starship. The scanning radar was far less powerful than the single pulse they had used earlier, but more discerning of surface detail. Everyone held their breath and hoped the starship’s crew would not interpret the new signal as an unfriendly act.
"How is the microwave link?" Garth asked Eli.
The linguist glanced down at a hand held monitor and responded, "Going out strong, Captain! Earth will be watching this same scene in another 630 hours."
"My God, how large a ship is it?" Kit asked when the radar began to paint the alien vessel’s image on the screen. Dimensional information appeared unbidden to answer the question. The central cylinder was slightly more than four kilometers long, with a diameter of one kilometer. Its shape was highly reminiscent of a human LaGrange colony — hardly surprising since both were designed to simulate planetary conditions in a space environment. The shroud lines terminated in the spherical structure at the aft end of the cylinder. Doppler measurements showed cylinder and sphere to be rotating at different speeds. The sphere’s movement was synchronized with the twice-an-hour rotation of the light sail, while the cylinder rotated once about its axis every/ 48 seconds.
"How much centripetal force at the periphery?"
"I make it 87% of Earth standard," Tory reported.
"That proves they’re from an Earthlike world, at least in terms of gravity."
"Not necessarily, Captain," Kit said. "Remember, Saturn’s gravitational field isn’t much stronger than Earth’s. They may be from a gas giant."
"Let’s get a surface temperature reading from the hull."
"Infrared radiation peaks at 20° C."
"Still sounds like Earth to me. Still, Kit has a good point. Let’s not jump to conclusions."
Just then, the screen switched from radar display back to the view from the ship’s telescope. A tiny cylinder lay silhouetted against the black of space just above the limb of the light sail. The resemblance to a LaGrange colony was uncanny. Complex machinery could plainly be seen covering the starship’s hull. Some of these would be heat rejection mechanisms, Tory knew. Rejecting waste heat to the vacuum of space was a much larger problem than most people realized. Other bits were undoubtedly sensors, while still others might be weapons. Distance and lack of familiarity with Tau Cetian technology made it impossible to be certain of anything.
"Why are there no lights?" Kit wondered aloud.
Until then Tory hadn’t realized that the alien cylinder was completely dark. It was dimly illuminated by distant Sol and the glow emanating from the light sail.
"Maybe the ship is a derelict after all."
"Why should there be lights?" Guttieriz asked. "Who is going to see them out here?"
"Whatever the reason," Garth replied, "lets make sure that we’re getting pictures of everything."
"Scanning," Tory reported. Through her implant she was aware that a dozen different data streams were wending their way back toward Earth. Each passing second gained humanity several million bytes of additional data concerning the alien craft.
Their concentration on the viewscreen was suddenly broken by a muted tone. The noise was so ordinary that it took a few seconds to register. Four sets of eyes were drawn as one to the small symbol that had suddenly appeared in the lower corner of the viewscreen. The icon was that of an old style telephone. It signaled the arrival of a message on the short range, ship-to-ship communications band. The only problem was that there was but one other ship within six hundred light hours of them …
Garth looked sharply at Tory. "You aren’t playing a joke with your implant, are you?"
The look on her face convinced him of her innocence.
"What do we do?" she asked
He took a deep breath and reached for the communications control on his instrument panel. "We answer it."