Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Ghost Ship

The Ghost Ship
A short story inspired by Asimov’s “Each an explorer.”

By Charles C. King
 “Baah!  Baah!  Baah!”  Charlene D never expected her phone to ring that way, the most uncomfortable, intrusive, ugly siren that she’s never heard from the phone.  Not that she’s never heard it before, when she got the phone from the office they’ve let her listen to the various different ring tones so that she knows what each represents, and she remembered this ugly Baahing as the utmost urgent.
“Charlene here,” she touched her cheek and spoke into the air. 
“Commander D, we need you back at the station immediately.” 
“General?  You’re calling personally?”
“Errr, yes, this is General Harpalani.  Just come back here as soon as possible.  We need you in space pronto.”
“Yes sir!”
The communication ended.  It was very rare that Charlene would receive a call from the office not made by the AI, with its perfect pronunciation, accent-less and sexless tone synthesized by a computer.
Commander Charlene D was a spaceship pilot.  Not any spaceship pilot, but one of the rare, fighter pilots that has laser cannons, missiles, towing harnesses, and fusion bombs under her control.  Not that she has a busy career, war has been altogether eliminated from the surface of earth, but with so much space activity in earth orbit and within the solar system, someone has to play cop and maintain order, and also deal with asteroids and space debris that could harm a planet or space station.  Someone would say that these so-called fighter pilots has all the power in the worlds, as it was strictly prohibitive for any other spaceships other than the government defense ships to be armed at all.  There were only a dozen fighter pilots and Charlene was one of the best.
Charlene tapped a switch in her car and told it to go to the space station, in emergency mode.  The car swayed around perfectly on the highway and started flashing invisible communication messages to the cars all around and in front, who automatically made way for the speeding pilot.
The car drove her directly to the hanger area.  The General was standing by the hanger entrance waiting in anticipation.
“Great!  You are back.”  General Harpalani seemed to be panting.  Did he run all the way from his office?
“I need you to take off immediately.  Pick up four fuel tanks in the orbit, and fly towards Jupiter at your highest possible speed for now and I’ll tell you about the mission on the way.”
Now that’s a first!  Charlene thought.  Normally, the mission profile would have been well prepared in advance, all necessary maneuvers fully calculated and simulated by the AI.  The only reason they still need human pilots for the fighter spaceships is that it is against all rules and laws to let a computer control a weapon without a human squeezing the trigger.
Charlene wasn’t even sure if the Computer would let her take off.  “Rendezvous in low earth orbit with the fuel tanks, and set course to Jupiter high orbit, at the fastest speed,” she told her navigation AI.  “Yes ma’am.”  She always liked the way the computerized voice tried to do a military respond.  She’s tuned the synthesizer to be slightly lower in tone frequency and speak slower so that she can imagine it is a sexy male speaking.  The call sign of her computer was Doug, so that she can call it Dung when she’s frustrated.
The fighter took off hung under the gigantic electric powered launch platform like a normal atmospheric airplane.  With twelve propellers, the big mother plane crawls through the air slowly until it was way higher than the clouds, and became all dark around, the earth seemingly a perfect dish underneath.  Next, the fighter was released from the launch plane and its rockets fired off to bring it into space.
The fighter automatically steered towards a speck of light in the far horizon.  That was the strange structure that four enormous fuel tanks have just docked with each other in the past hour awaiting Commander D’s pick up.  Rendezvous and docking with the fuel tanks took place without any worry, and, sucking the new fuel now, Charlene blasts off toward Jupiter.
All this time, Charlene has let the computer do all the flying; she was reading the mission instructions from the screen.  Part of it seemed to have been typed in manually in a hurry, with lots of typing errors, and part of it was from dictation typing that apparently haven’t been proof read, with wrong words and punctuation.  It was reasonably understandable, though she had to re-read it twice to make sure she understands the bizarre situation.
A perimeter guard satellite flying around Saturn has detected an interstellar intruding object flying towards the inner solar system.  She was to blast her way to Jupiter, sling shot around, and try to get near the object and take a look what it is.  Deep space telescope says it is about 50 meters long, symmetric, and looks oddly artificial.  This is the first time human has “intercepted” something that might be from an alien intelligence.  It is also coming at a dangerously trajectory, if it does not have propulsion, meaning if it is not really an alien space ship, then it would have high probability of hitting earth after a few revolutions around the sun.
It was all anxious shooting through space at high speed.  Doug the computer emptied the first fuel tank for a very long burn of the fighter’s rockets aiming for Jupiter.  A short but fury burn points the fighter in the right direction after skirting around Jupiter, and then the second fuel tank was emptied to accelerate and catch the unknown object.
Waking up from a very deep sleep is a very comfortable experience.  Almost like new born again, once gaining consciousness, feeling fully rested, full of energy, fully functional, no cramped muscles all around, and feeling the familiar weightlessness in micro gravity.  Commander Charlene D opened her eyes to the great familiar blue sphere in her view port.  Earth!
But - what about the mission?  What about flying out in emergency intercepting the interstellar intruding object?  Why has she fallen asleep in the first place?  A veteran of dozens of space travels, she’s never slept well in a mission.
“Computer!  What’s happened?”  She felt rogue and angry and addressed the artificial intelligence in the crudest name, instead of the cute call sign she’s given it.
“You’ve just woke up from a sleep, Commander.” 
“What about our mission?  Where’s the object?”
“It is gone now, Commander.  It has collided with the Sun.”
“What?  How.. why..”
“While you were asleep, we have rendezvous with the ship, strapped one of our fuel tanks on it, fired the docking thrusters on the fuel tank, and sent the ship into a solar collision trajectory.  I have kept tracking on the ship and confirmed that it has disappeared within the sun’s proximity about thirty minutes ago.
“What?  Why was I asleep through all this?  Who authorized you to do this?”
“My programming dictates me to preserve the welfare of mankind and your healthiness, ma’am.”
“But you’re not supposed to operate without me!”  She is practically yelling at Doug now.
“I am not allowed to fire my weapons without human authorization and administration.  However, no weapons were fired and no human was harmed.”
“Wait a minute.  You called that object a ship.  Was it an alien space ship?  You know we’re not supposed to shoot aliens either!”
“No ma’am, I have confirmation that the ship was a human space ship.  It was from a different space-time, most probably, but the human on board were all dead, maybe thousands of years ago.”
“What?  A space ship from thousands of years ago and you’ve destroyed it?  This is worse that killing the people!”
“There was no choice, ma’am.  We only had a few seconds to make the action decision.”
“Oh.  Now I start to remember.  We were approaching the object – the ship from the Jupiter slingshot burn.  But why are we in earth orbit now?”
“When we got near the ship, we sent in all our three drones.  The first one missed.  The second drone slipped on the hull and was lost.  The third drone succeeded in attaching itself to the ship and sent back information that I have decided to immediately take action.”
“Why didn’t I remember any of this?”
“Commander, all the time when we were approaching the ship, you were… not quite yourself, so to say.”
“Not quite myself?”
“You were muttering ‘must get it back to earth’ all the time.  My diagnosis was that you were drugged, probably mentally.”
“You were trying to dock with the ship and get on board yourself.  I have tried to reason with you that it was against regulation to board the ship in this manner.  Finally, I had to reduce your oxygen mixture in order to put you to sleep.”
“So you drugged me!  You tried to suffocate me!”
“No Commander.  Your vital signs were monitored all the time the evaluation was that the danger to your health is insignificant with the welfare of all mankind on earth.”
“Tell me.  Why did you destroy the ship?  You said it was human from another space-time, maybe another earth?  That’s very valuable information for mankind!”
“Commander D, the ship was contaminated with an alien lifeform.  That lifeform started to affect you when we were approaching the ship.  It caused you to hallucination.  I think it was some kind of mind control.  It told you to take the ship back to earth.  That is why I have decided to put you to sleep.”
“Per doctrine, the standard procedure to approach an alien object is to send out drones.  When the third drone made contact, I was able to establish communication with the navigation computer of the ship.  That was how I understood the situation.  What I did with the ship was actually suggested by the navigation computer of that ship.”
“What exactly happened on the ship?”
“The alien lifeform was Plantae.  The human pilots on that ship visited some alien planets in exploration, and the human were affected by the alien lifeform and landed on the planets without any preservation.  The alien lifeform infiltrated the ship and made the pilots attempt to rush back to earth.  However, their space-time engine has malfunctioned and although the pilots should have the ability to fix and re-calibrate the engine, they were practically out of their minds and just aimed for earth and fired up the space-time engine.  It ended up taking thousands of years and showed up here in a totally different space-time.  The human were dead a few months after they started the journey.  The alien lifeform transferred into seeds.  The navigation computer was planning on a sun collision trajectory all the time to prevent the alien lifeform from landing on any planet, but the ship has run out of any maneuver fuel.  It has asked me to help it finish its mission.”
Charlene was quiet for a few moments.  “Why did you say you had only a few seconds to decide what to do?”
“As I was communicating with the navigation computer, the seeds had started to grow at an extraordinary rate.  I saw that happening from the video feed that was channeled through.  The navigation computer was destroyed by brute force of the growing plant 1.3 seconds after we started communication.  I have estimated that it would take only at most five seconds for the alien lifeform to burst open the ship and attach to our fighter.  I have immediately fired our thrusters to put more distance with the ship, detached a fuel tank, maneuvered it over for the drone to hold on to, and then fired its thrusters aiming for the sun.   The first few seconds of thruster push would be enough to guarantee the ship’s destruction.”
Commander Charlene D is now fully convinced.  “OK, Doug, take me home.  Let’s go tell the general how a computer has just saved the world but destroyed the evidence that human could time travel.”

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