Foundation Day

4 11 2011

There was the collective murmur of several hundred excited conversations, competing with the sound of jazz music from the speakers.

“It’s like polarization modulation.”

Stepan Eshkol and Elzette Skovgaard stood together awkwardly, cradling their drinks. Stepan pushed his glasses up his nose and articulated analogies for the clashing sounds of the party, while Elzette watched him discreetly from the corner of her eye. The glimmer in those eyes suggested that she was already abuzz from the kava. She tucked a strand of auburn hair behind her ear.

Jacques Renard slipped past them. He saw Ruslan Rusakov, whose arm was wrapped around the shoulders of Xu Sze Leng, and both were engaged in conversation with Allesandro Mierhof and another colleague whose back was to Jacques. Mierhof was quite animated, speaking loudly and gesturing with his hands. Jacques caught Ruslan’s attention. Jacques gave a smile and a nod, which Ruslan coyly returned. Ruslan mouthed the words: thank you.

The crowd was densest around the bar. Here they served a number of juices, grown on Fram for the first time from seed stocks frozen during the trip on the Quoqasi. There were limited supplies of these first crops, but the occasion merited their enjoyment. There were orange, strawberry, carrot and tomato juices, and these were poured atop ice and shots of kava. Vessels containing sticks of celery flanked the bar.

“I won’t lie to you,” Mierhof exclaimed over the hum of the crowd, “I do miss a good drink. Honest to goodness alcohol. It’s been years!”

Vetsera Lindenmeyr and Leroy Stohlberg wormed their way through the crowd, Vetsera leading and, holding hands, pulling Leroy behind her. They stopped at the bar and Lindenmeyr ordered two drinks; Stohlberg wrapped his arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. They giggled. Both smelled of smoke – a blend of zornia latifolia, pedicularis densiflora, Egyptian water lily and Turkistan mint.

Yi Jianyu and Harlan Zimmerman were speaking with Konrad Faraday, describing the progression of Fram through its orbit in the time since Planetfall.

“Winter is coming,” Yi said. “One Earth year is less than a third of a Fram year.”

He held two fists up to demonstrate the orbit of Fram around Alpha Centauri B.  He described the dropping temperatures as Fram receded from Alpha B. Yi was oblivious to Faraday’s boredom.

Spread across one wall of the cargo bay was a softscreen, on which footage of the Foundation Day festivities was cycling. Disinterested members of the crowd watched this footage. There were gala balls in each of the colonies, and Charles Clarendon and Gina Divero – representing the Presidium – were celebrating on Port Mayflower. Smiling for the cameras, Gina and Clarendon were shaking the hands of Tomasz Borzęcki and Chesney Perrine – both of whom had been named in the Colonial Honours List.

The youngest recipient of that award was in the arms of his mother. Peregrine, with a thin clutch of dark hair, looked upon the ball with curious but tired eyes. He shied away from the most enthusiastic of partygoers, and laid his head on his mother’s shoulder. Sanna Winslow hitched him up on her hip as she spoke with well-wishers.

On the softscreen now was the sombre procession of images of those who had died in the past year: twenty-nine faces, happy and smiling, lives cut short in the accident at the mining site, the loss of the Harry Gold in a solar flare, the depressurisation of Alpha-2, cut short by suicide and by murder. Sanna pointed out the face of her late husband to Peregrine.

Naftali Nassimatissi stepped around the bar. He tapped a spoon to his glass of tomato juice.

“I don’t really have anything prepared,” he began, to a ripple of polite laughter. “We’ve seen tough and we’ve seen wonderful times. We’ve all seen triumph and tragedy. I think what says it best is that, nine months ago, we were enduring rationing – and tonight we have fruit and vegetable juice.”

Applause.

“I’ve heard many people tonight discussing this anniversary, and some saying that we should move away from the Earth calendar. I just want to say that we still call Earth ‘Home.’ I don’t think it’s wrong to celebrate these occasions.”

He raised his glass to the crowd.

“So, here is to our first year on Fram. May there be many, many more.”

“Cheers!”

“Bravo!”

The murmur of the crowd returned, and the Foundation Day celebrations continued into the night…

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Convergence, Part Three

3 11 2011

And so, the planetary systems of the two Main Sequence stars of Alpha Centauri came to settle into a tenuous equipoise. Proxima Centauri, Fram, Belgica and Maud, their moons, the asteroids of the inner system and dwarf planets and KBOs of the outer system, circled about Alpha Centauri A and B for four and a half billion years. So too did Alpha Centauri A and B circle about the Milky Way as the entire Galaxy spun like a pinwheel, its spiral arms trailing away from the direction of its rotation. And the Milky Way interacted with the Local Group, and was pulled with the accelerating expansion of the Universe.

It was a stasis of silent, sure, sweeping movements.

In that silence, a narrow and forever imperilled form of life emerged. The impact of comets and carbonaceous chondrite asteroids gave the moon that humans would one day call Amundsen a burgeoning atmosphere, and, with that carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane and ammonia, deposited organic compounds, long-chain hydrocarbons and amino acids. While the planets and moons spun in mean motion resonances, these compounds evolved into a primitive life that consumed carbon dioxide and hydrogen and produced methane.

These methanogens, exceptional and precious and delicate though they were, would never look at the stars and give them names; would never write equations to explain the motion of the planets; would never manipulate the fundamental building blocks of the Universe and use that knowledge to propel themselves across the gulf between stars. For two billion years these methanogens evolved in complexity and function from those cometary hydrocarbons – and then their evolution plateaued, unable to expand from their niche. Fragile fronds caressed the thin air of Amundsen with neither mind nor purpose.

When Amundsen’s surface was shattered by a devastating impact, these methanogens rode debris to the surface of Fram, and, in the overabundance of Fram’s dense carbon dioxide atmosphere, thrived and exploded in numbers.

By contrast, the life that had evolved on Earth was diverse and abundant. It had likewise taken billions of years to evolve, but had done so in an environment of plentiful oxygen, which readily bound with the structural molecules of living organisms – carbohydrates, proteins – and, as an oxidiser, was an energetic component of cellular respiration. Fuelled by oxygen and liquid water, simple cells blossomed over almost four billion years into multi-cellular life; and, in a burst of less than half a billion years, arthropods, fish, plants, and insects appeared; and then, over another 150 million years, reptiles, mammals, birds. After a series of extinction events and periods of climatic change, humans appeared, roughly recognisable after 4.2 billion years of evolution, and certainly within the last 200,000 years as the species that would spread among the stars.

In the space between chords of the musica universalis, humans began to communicate and share knowledge, and to congregate in settlements and farm the lands around them; through agriculture they developed empires and republics and began to speculate about the Universe in which they had evolved. In a flicker of time imperceptible to the patient stars, humans spread across the face of and came to rapidly dominate their planet, first split and then fused the atom, walked on their Moon, developed radio telescopes and studied the stars. As they did so, humans imparted upon the Universe both mind and purpose.

They searched for other worlds like their own. At first they listened to the stars for radio messages, assuming that life had evolved elsewhere as humanity had, and that this life would communicate in the same way that humanity did. They then used increasingly sophisticated technology to monitor the brightness of stars, watching for the transit of planets across the face of those stars; measured the movements of those stars to determine the gravitational influence of large planets upon their star; and, with orbiting space observatories, developed telescopes that could eventually resolve individual planets light years away.

Despite their relative proximity to Sol, Fram and Belgica evaded easy detection. Both were small planets, and many of the methods were biased toward the detection of large gas giants. Belgica orbited close to Alpha Centauri A, and was, at a distance of over four light years, indistinguishable from the light of its parent star. And Fram’s slow, elliptical orbit did not frequently transit the face of Alpha Centauri B – and, when it did, it did so quickly, as Einstein had theorised of an object that moved deeper into the curvature of space-time created by a massive body.

Nonetheless, observations of other stars encouraged humans to believe that small, undetected worlds orbited their nearest neighbours. They sent sophisticated, robotic probes to the closest stars, even as they exploded in number and expanded from their damaged homeworld to colonise the nearest planets and moons of their solar system.

Thus, decelerating from nine-tenths light speed, a robotic mind appeared in the Alpha Centauri system, and reported to the distant minds that had evolved in nearby Sol. This probe noted Fram, noted also its atmosphere and magnetosphere, concluded that human settlement would be possible upon its surface, compiled a report detailing these conclusions to relay to Earth. And with the receipt of those conclusions, two separate star systems – which had, perhaps, in the distant past formed from the same molecular cloud, but which had developed in vastly divergent ways – enjoyed the beginnings of convergence.

Alpha Centauri A and B had not completed two orbits of their mutual barycentre in the time between the arrival of the first, primitive, crackling radio signals from Sol and the arrival of the first interstellar starship. Immediately, the colonists borne from Sol by that ship went to work making Alpha Centauri their home. Intelligence evolved of another star, but an intelligence nonetheless, came to explore and appreciate Fram. Philosophers among those colonists would ask whether Fram had even existed before colonisation, without a sentient, rational mind to observe its orbit, the movement of regolith across the duricrust, the disintegration of Amundsen.

And, then, the life which had come so recently to Alpha Centauri discovered the life that had in so limited a fashion evolved there. At that point, two divergent paths taken by the Universe toward the emergence of complexity, separated by five billion years and four light years, converged…





G, C, A and T

4 08 2011

“I really had no idea,” Lindenmeyr said. “It’s so…alien.”

The breather unit strapped across her mouth and nose muffled her voice. She stood across from the leading molecular biologist of the colonies. They were standing in a geodesic greenhouse, an igloo of polymers and plastics, connected to Alpha-2’s hydroponics shed by a tented walkway. Regolith had built up on the windward side of the igloo.

The molecular biologist was also head of hydroponics for Alpha-2, Lindenmeyr’s counterpart, and he was an ebullient man in his fifties named Ngan. He ran his hand over a frond of the methanogen. The alien plants were lined in a nutrient trough not unlike the lettuce and soy that Lindenmeyr so delicately tended each day; these plants were, however, immersed in a solution of hydrates, and existed in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide and methane.

“Oh yes,” Ngan spoke eagerly. He chuckled. “Very alien. You don’t know the half of it.”

“Even the name,” Lindemmeyr ventured, “is anthropomorphic.”

“Oh yes.”

Buried deep within Earth’s mantle, microbial communities existed that were almost entirely isolated from the rest of the planet’s biosphere. Within those depths, hydrogen was dissociated from water by heat and pressure and radioactivity, and this hydrogen combined with dissolved carbon dioxide and powered the microbial biomass, which metabolically produced methane. These were the methanogens after which we had, somewhat unimaginatively, named the biomass of Fram.

Lindenmeyr ran her bare fingers through the fronds. The texture of the plant was more like soft rubber, or maybe putty; it offered an unnerving resistance to her touch. On closer inspection, she could see that these fronds were in fact wide, tube-like structures, fatter at their base but which inevitably narrowed into a mouth at the tip.

“The methanogens on Earth,” she said, “they’re microbes. They could be studied only through a microscope. This I can touch, feel, plant.”

“Microbial methanogens,” Ngan said, referring to the Terran variety, “are thermophiles. They thrive on heat. By comparison, these methanogens are psychrophiles. That they live through Fram’s winters speaks to their extreme tolerance of cold.”

“Should we even be calling them ‘methanogens’?”

“I don’t see why not. They produce methane from carbon dioxide and hydrogen, just as their microbial counterparts do. And both are extremophiles.”

“But comparisons end there,” Lindenmeyr prompted.

On Earth, all life emerged from the same soup of primordial microbes, three or four billion years ago. This emergence was the spark of life, a miracle, a random assembly of strings of amino acids into coherent structures that spawned nucleotides, proteins and enzymes – a moment of such unimaginable unlikeliness that humans would later deify it and call it Genesis. From that point, life blossomed and developed and was subjected to the pressures of evolution, and diversified into the branches of the tree of life.

We know that all life came from the same point of origin because all the life on Earth – humans, bacteria, tomatoes, pigeons, everything – shared the same structure and were organised by the same system. DNA and RNA stored information; proteins and enzymes composed structures; adenosine triphosphate (ATP) released energy. Identical genes were found in vastly divergent species – although organised in different structures, humans shared 63 percent of their genetic material with mice and 38 percent with yeast.

From the data stored in DNA, genetic code translated instructions for ribosomes to make proteins by stringing together amino acids in a determined order. The information was stored as molecular units named nucleotides; there were four different nucleotides that were labelled G, C, A and T based on the nucleobases guanine, cytosine, adenine and thymine. What distinguished Lindenmeyr and Ngan from their childhood pets or from the soya they drank that morning were the sequence of those letters. DNA grouped these nucleotides into clusters of three: there were sixty-four different possible triplet combinations that together specified twenty-one different types of amino acids. There was a huge range of possible permutations of nucleotides and amino acids, and it was this range that generated the enormous, diverse, elegant abundance of life on Earth.

All life on Earth used these structures to exist.

“Before we even got to a genetic profile, we knew something was different,” Ngan said. “You know that microbial methanogens use chemiosmosis to generate ATP, where hydrogen is the reducing agent and carbon dioxide is the substitute electron acceptor in the absence of oh-two.”

“Anaerobic respiration, yes.”

“Well, the methanogens on Fram don’t produce ATP through chemiosmosis. At first we thought that they produced ATP through oxidation of carbohydrates, with an endogenous electron acceptor, maybe sulphate…”

“Wait,” Lindenmeyr said. “Fermentation?”

“Oh yes, that’s what we thought. Based on these tube-like fronds and these plants’ preference for carbon dioxide and hydrogen. But it seems that these methanogens, well, they don’t produce ATP.”

“Umm.”

Botanists had subjected the Fram methanogens to the Levin test, a labelled release of two liquids, one of sugars and the other of amino acids. The test was to determine chirality, the preference of genetic material for right-handed sugars or left-handed amino acids. The tests reacted equally to both mixtures, suggesting a chemical rather than biological reaction.

“My god,” Lindenmeyr whispered. “There’s no chirality. No right-handed DNA spiral.”

“No,” Ngan replied. “Because there’s no DNA. No ATP. No nucleotides. This is alien life, Vetsera.”

Lindenmeyr took a moment.

“Even so, it’s pretty god damned alien.”

“Oh yes,” Ngan chuckled. “Let me show you what we’ve learned so far…”





Wings over the New World

1 08 2011

SookyBird

“…the newly-formed Special Aeronautics Department began as a small collection of office modules and scaffolding atop Alpha-1.  Their crowning achievement was taking the powerplant of a Sprat and turning it into the SAD-1, or ‘Sookybird’ as it came to be known.  A light, powered glider; manned by a single pilot and fired via a magnetic slingshot from a specially-designed flight gantry.  It was as much an exercise in raising the spirits of the colonists as it was a technical achievement.”

After the murder, we came to appreciate the limitations of satellite photography.

Cane had disappeared into that vast area beyond the colonies and seismological relay stations that we had slowly come to call the Periphery, and neither satellites nor trackers could find him. Only weeks later had a long-range team chanced upon the degrading, short-range beacon of Cane’s vehicle.

Satellite mapping of Fram was an ongoing task. We had since Planetfall mapped a swath of Fram, centred on the equator and ranging between twenty and twenty-five degrees north and south latitudes. We had accomplished this with only two satellites, locked in opposing orbits. There were, of course, over a dozen different satellites in orbit of our world, but most of these were space observatories examining the Universe in various wavelengths, or monitoring the Amundsen Ring for potential impactors.

Yet the ground resolution of the images provided by these mapping satellites was in some cases insufficient for our needs. There were other limitations beyond low ground resolution. The manoeuvrability of satellites was restricted to their planned orbit, in turn circumscribed by delta-vee and payload. Because of this, data collection was slow, as evidenced by the limited coverage of Fram’s surface achieved in the months since Planetfall. Data collection was also dependent on weather, and, although cloud cover was less a restriction on Fram than the worlds and moons of Sol, dust storms were common, and in the polar latitudes these storms were violent and long-lasting. Moreover, our pool of satellites was limited to those brought from Sol aboard the Quoqasi and the Mayflower; although we could potentially build more, the costs of construction and launch were prohibitive.

Thus, we turned to cheaper alternatives to supplement the data collection of satellites. Two contending alternatives were submitted to the Special Aeronautics Department: an unmanned aerial vehicle, and a low-altitude, manned aircraft. Various designs for each alternative were explored, from fixed-wing aircraft to VTOL rotorcraft, to airships, to both autonomous and guided UAVs. Almost every design responded to Fram’s thick atmosphere with differing wing shapes. Some of these shapes appeared to the eyes of creatures that evolved on a world of comparatively thin air as impossible, or delicate, as though no lift could possibly be imparted on such a shape. The most creative of designs was for a UAV with sets of wings like those of a dragonfly which, through a complex motion calculated to reduce drag, paddled through the air.

Fram’s atmosphere imposed further limitations. Its thickness provided more lift, certainly, but that density also required more of the aircraft’s engine for propulsion. Designers looked at jet engines, fuelled by SiH4, an oxidiser that readily burned in a carbon dioxide atmosphere. But silane was both difficult to manufacture and extremely toxic. Other methods of propulsion were examined, and these methods would be balanced by the requirements of power and endurance.

The advantages of a low-altitude photographic platform were readily apparent. Ground resolution would be increased, and data collection would be less constrained by weather. The ability to follow more complicated flight paths offered the geologists a better perception of the depth and scale of geological features; while increased resolution would help the xenobotanists identify clusters of methanogens. Moreover, these platforms offered real-time data – which would become important for search-and-rescue as we grew outward from the colonies and further explored our world.

And so there was some amount of compromise behind the accepted design: the SAD-1. It was a manned vehicle, which reduced its endurance, but also reduced the complexity of its design. The Special Aeronautics Department accepted that endurance was less an issue while the Colonies remained young, as most of the SAD-1’s work would be within two of three hours’ flight of its airbase atop Alpha-1. It was powered by solar-electric cells that lined the surfaces of its wings, and these electric cells could be powered by lasers beamed from the surface. The SAD-1 was propelled by two turboshaft engines mounted in the bases of its wings, which produced free turbine shaft power that spun rear-mounted propfans. Flanking the fuselage was a sophisticated sensor suite of electromagnetic spectrum sensors – infrared, ultraviolet, microwave – laser spectroscopes, and geomagnetic sensors. Mounted beneath the SAD-1’s fuselage was a super-wide angle camera, composed of four digital cameras mounted in overlapping optical axes.

At some point along the length design process, the name ‘Sookybird’ was attached to the SAD-1, and by the time of its maiden flight that moniker had stuck. The vehicle was launched from the upper heights of Alpha-1 using the same kind of electromagnetic catapult installed at Wisting Base on Amundsen. There were sparse crowds of interested onlookers, mostly colonists of Alpha-1, gathered along the ridge of the crater. Not many of those gathered appreciated the irony that the Sookybird’s first high-resolution mapping mission was of the Henderson Ridge, where Cane had murdered his partner and vanished into the Periphery…





Biochemistry

27 07 2011

Biochemisty

“…At the basic level, it is pure biology.  At the most pessimistic, it lowers productivity.  At the most positive, it salves the psychological hardships of our project.  But most importantly, at the sociological level, it is the very key to our future and one would be a fool and a tyrant not to let love bloom.”

Lindenmeyr came up behind Stohlberg. She reached for his shoulder and leaned on him. Their footsteps trailed away down the incline, crisp in the duricrust.

“Look at that,” he said, gesturing with that shoulder toward the landscape he was gazing upon. “That’s what I wanted to show you.”

They were standing on the northern lip of the vast crater in which the colonies sat. Below and to their left, maybe a kilometre and a half away, was the looming bulk of Alpha-4. There was the immense slab of the colony pod stretching its length away from them, dusted with regolith from a recent dust storm. The pod loomed over the small buildings that had sprouted at its base. Clutches of modules were stacked atop its dorsal surface. The light rail channel cut across the concave bowl of the crater away toward Charlotte Station.

Lindenmeyr pointed excitedly. “Hey, look, there’s Alpha-3!”

Stohlberg looked past and to the right of the elevator ribbon and saw, across the breadth of the crater and diminished by the distance, the vertical columns of lights of Alpha-3’s skyline. The far crater lip was seven or eight kilometres distant, and a bruised brown-purple colour. Alpha Centauri B had set, and the jagged shadow of Henderson Ridge was cast across the western hemisphere of the crater.

“The crater in which the colonies sit is what we call a simple crater,” Stohlberg explained. He held his hand out flat in front of him, palm toward the ground, and made a sweeping motion that mimicked the curvature of the crater floor. “There is a layer of shattered rock under the floor of the crater, brecciated rocks, along with glassy spatters of melted regolith, shocked quartz, spherulites, tektites. We also find fracture patterns in the underlying bedrock.”

“And the ridges?”

Stohlberg pointed at the ridges that parenthetically enclosed the crater. Along forty-five degrees of the northwestern lip, and one hundred and sixty degrees of the southeastern lip, the crater wall rose up into a series of elevated, serrated outcroppings. These were the Henderson and Innes Ridges.

“Mostly impact ejecta.”

Stohlberg explained that the impactor likely hit Fram’s surface at an angle – he made a cutting motion with his hand – and that the impact directed most of the ejecta to the southeast. Spalled bolides of basalt and impact melt formed opposing ridgelines that were weathered over millions of years by prevailing anabatic winds. More resistant resistant materials remained while the softer regolith was eroded away, leaving those irregular ridges.

Lindenmeyr pointed toward the Henderson Ridge off to their right. Nestled in the lee of the ridge and at the mouth of De Lacaille Canyon was Alpha-2 – a collection of mismatched modules connected by pressurised tunnels, bundled around the light rail terminus.

“The botanists of Alpha-2 have found that the methanogens live well in the complex terrain of the ridges. Plenty of places for volatiles to pool.”

“I guess they, those plants, have become more interesting since the fossils were found up on Amundsen.”

Lindenmeyr gave Stohlberg a playful, backhanded slap across his arm. “Lee! They were plenty interesting before then! I mean, my God: the first multicellular life to be found beyond our homeworld! That we should find something like that on the first world we settle has enormous implications for the likelihood and the frequency and the range of life in our galaxy.”

“Not to mention the possibility that these methanogens might not have evolved on Fram.”

“An anecdotal possibility, yes,” Lindenmeyr replied cautiously. “Once the tarmac and launch system are complete at Wisting Base, we hope to compare samples of the fossils they’ve discovered with the methanogens here. With a DNA analysis we might prove their relation, even identify a point of departure.”

Stohlberg was intoxicated by her enthusiasm.

Lindenmeyr explained that the botanists in Alpha-2 had begun to cultivate the methanogens, even to farm them in their own way. Using hydrogen as a reducing agent, these methanogens produced methane as a metabolic byproduct of carbon dioxide. This methane was captured and condensed into compressed natural gas, an important fuel source that supplemented the troubled colony’s energy requirements. Moreover, methane was crucial for the production of methanol, acetylene, ascetic acid and ascetic anhydride – industrial chemicals that would be of use to the colonies.

“Methane is also a potent greenhouse gas,” Stohlberg noted. “Much more effective than carbon dioxide in trapping heat. We might put that to use in warming Fram.”

“There has been talk about that,” Lindenmeyr responded. She leaned into Stohlberg, conspiratorially. “The Presidium asked for a report on just that topic for the Third Congress. Did you know that, over a century, methane is twenty-five times more effective than a similar-mass emission of carbon dioxide?”

“I didn’t,” he replied, and looked down into Lindenmeyr’s excited eyes.

Stohlberg felt the urge to kiss her on the cheek, quickly, as was his habit; instead, he ran his fingers, hurting from the cold wind in fingerless gloves, through her short hair. Consciously or unconsciously, she nuzzled her head into his hand.

“I love your enthusiasm for your work,” he said. “I could listen to you all day.”

She giggled, a sound poorly translated through the mike.

“Me too.”

And, suddenly, Stohlberg remembered something he had read, long ago: that love was above all else the overwhelming urge to share thoughts. Here were a botanist and a geologist, exchanging their thoughts, discussing the great project of which they were a part, involving one another in their lives. Two humans, yes, standing on an alien world, at the edge of an impact crater millions of years old, gazing with pride and fascination upon their work.

And slowly, irrevocably – like the lithification of strata into eolianite, or the chemiosmosis of hydrogen in an anoxic environment – falling in love.

The Universe given mind and purpose.

Reflected in the faceplate of Lindenmeyr’s suit, Stohlberg could see the rotating silhouette of the bucket wheel excavator, illuminated by the crimson and purple dusk falling below the horizon. The machine was working along the open pit mine far away behind him and to the north, and was distorted by the curvature of her faceplate.

“Are you up for a hike? There’s something else I want to show you.”

Arm in arm, they started off north.





C/2084 N1

21 07 2011

Eleven months after Planetfall, a bright, magnificent comet appeared between Scorpius and Ophiuchus.

Its discoverer named it not after herself but for the middle name of a grandmother left long behind on Earth. Ironically, Comet Tsumugi was discovered as a dirty smudge through a telescope only days before its nucleus began a period of intense outgassing and was visible to all, even during daylight.

It had three visible tails that stretched across forty degrees of the sky, and as it made its closest approach to Fram, it brightened up to magnitude negative eight. The two bluish tails were of ionized gases, and pointed in two directions away from Alpha A and Alpha B. There was a broader, curved tail of dust, and in this dust tail, spiral structures appeared. Tsumugi was laid like a striated carpet across the southern hemisphere of Fram’s sky.

The astronomers explained that it was a fresh comet, as unseen by Fram as it was by those who had so recently come to live upon her surface. Its first journey into the inner system from the Oort Cloud brought it whipping around Alpha B in an elliptical orbit that was deeply declined to the plane of the ecliptic. Its perihelion was a bare thirty-five million kilometres from the star; its closest approach to Fram was a hundred and twenty million kilometres.

Tsumugi’s surface was a dark, primordial crust of frozen carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia and heavy long-chain organics that protected its core of water ice. The light of two main sequence stars warmed the crust, and it absorbed this warmth, its darkness reflecting barely four percent of the light it received. Outgassing began when exposed water ice began to sublimate.

After it passed perihelion, Comet Tsumugi was visible even during those hours of daylight when both suns were in the sky. It was a commanding, inspiring sight, a vision of the beauty of the Universe, made all the more special by the bitterly cold and immense gulf between Fram and Home.

The astronomers also explained that, back Home, great comets were visible from Earth on average once a decade. They said that great comets would be much more frequent in the Alpha Centauri system – with its dense scattered disc and dispersed Oort Cloud, filled with the material that had composed the gas giants around Sol, and disturbed by the interactions of three stars. We would see many more great comets.

But never again Tsumugi. Gravitational perturbations caused by the two stars sent Comet Tsumugi slinging out into an orbital period of millions of years. The comet looped around Alpha B and sailed gracefully back out to the deep scattered disc, to be lost forever in the night…





Closed Session

30 05 2011

ClosedSession

Lit by the white light of the projector, the faces of the Presidium remained blank. Faraday, sitting next to Stepan, crossed his arms.

“Okay,” Stepan managed awkwardly, and brought up the next slide. “From the top. This is the data that the GBM squeezed from the burst we detected three weeks ago. As you can see, it’s a short-duration spike that tails away quickly. The spike peaked at precisely 17.59 mega-electron volts. We turned the satellite on the source after the burst was detected, but were unable to detect an afterglow.”

Gina Divero, representing Alpha-2, spoke up. “And that’s unusual?”

“Oh yes. The energies involved in the events which generate gamma ray bursts are…well, almost beyond description. So powerful that we’ve detected the afterglow of GRBs across thirteen billion light years.” Stepan skipped ahead a few slides to a series of pixelated images of orange and red spheres. “We’ve never detected one in the Milky Way because, not only are they exceedingly rare, but a GRB in the Milky Way would be nothing short of an extinction event.”

“But its says here,” Charles Clarendon, representing Alpha-3, read from his tablet, “that you established the point of origin?”

“We think so.” Stepan fumbled with the slides. “Without an afterglow, we could not measure the redshift of the light, and so could only determine a direction – not a distance. But along that path we quickly find – ”

A touch of Stepan’s fingertips to the tablet, and an animation was projected onto the wall that showed Alpha A and B orbiting their mutual barycentre. There was Fram, just for a moment, a delicate bead suspended on a line tracing its orbit; but then the image quickly panned out, and a line travelled away from the twin stars, passed Sol, bounced from a red marble labelled Lalande 21185, and intersected with another binary system far to its left. The image zoomed in on a small, red dwarf and its even dimmer companion.

“FL Virginis.” Stepan froze the image on the mysterious binary. “Or Wolf 424, if you prefer. A binary system of an M5-class red dwarf and an unknown companion, probably a high-mass brown dwarf. An utterly unremarkable system, cold and dim, deficient in metals and with little hydrogen. Barely more than a dozen light years away, so the source was clearly not a gamma-ray burst.”

Figures suspended on the lines between stars suggested that Lalande 21185 was equidistant from both Alpha Centauri and FL Virginis – 8.2 light years in each direction.

“But the source, this star, is a flare star, I read from your report,” Clarendon inquired.

“Yes.”

“Yes,” Clarendon repeated, but in an expectant tone.

Gina asked, “Could this be the cause of the spike you detected?”

“That’s what I thought, at first,” Stepan responded, “but my colleague Elzette Skovgaard has spent much time refuting the theory. Flare stars unpredictably and dramatically increase in brightness along visual spectra. They’re usually red dwarfs, like FL Virginis A – ”

“And Proxima, yes?”

“ – and like Proxima. And they’re usually binary or trinary systems, where another member of the system might induce contortions in the star’s magnetic field. Like a solar flare. Using Proxima for data, she’s shown that flare stars can radiate in the visual spectrum, X rays and radio waves – but don’t tend to flare gamma rays. But I don’t want to step on Konrad’s toes here.”

Stepan slid his tablet to Faraday, who cleared his throat.

“Yes. And of note here is the precise energy detected by the satellite.” Faraday changed slides, and the figure 17.59 MeV appeared on the wall. “This is the precise amount of energy – the precise amount – shared by the high-energy neutron and an alpha particle formed in a thermonuclear reaction between a tritium and deuterium nucleus.”

“Tritium,” Clarendon repeated. “Deuterium.”

“Indeed,” Faraday continued, “and tritium occurs irregularly in nature. Occasionally in atmospheres containing hydrogen and nitrogen that interact with cosmic rays.”

Stepan spoke up. “And, as I noted before, the Virginis system is deficient in hydrogen.”

“And these other possibilities you mentioned here,” Gina asked, skimming the report quickly, “you discount each?”

“I thought, maybe, that we’d detected a magnetar or a pulsar, directly behind FL Virginis, visible through gravitational lensing. But look at that spike. It’s a one-off; it hasn’t repeated in the three weeks since its first detection. For the same reason, it’s not a soft gamma repeater. We’d see oscillations related to its rotation period.  So then I thought that the red dwarf had developed an accretion disk, and that its companion was ploughing through that disk and generating pulses of gamma rays with each interaction. But we know the brown dwarf’s orbital period, just over sixteen years, and we’ve never detected a burst like this before –”

“We keep coming back to two things,” Faraday said impatiently. “First, FL Virginis is an unexceptional system. Second, the energy detected was precisely that of the fusion of deuterium and tritium.”

“And hence,” said Clarendon, in a low and foreboding voice, turning to the gathered members, “the closed session of the Presidium. You’re saying that, in a star system essentially two doors down, you’ve detected evidence of the detonation of a hydrogen bomb…”