Diaspora: A Near Thing
The white Queen’s Bishop glided along the diagonal of dark squares toward a small black castle. The Rook dissolved into a mist which parted and disappeared as the Bishop came to rest. Nora had added the effect a few months ago and claimed that it was the same every time a piece was captured but, as he watched his last major piece disappear from the board, Thomas Jefferson “TJ” Clarke wasn’t so sure. It certainly looked more flamboyant when you were losing. Again.
“Check, Boss. Mate in two.” Nora’s soft contralto came from the shadows on the far side of the board. She was neither smug nor apologetic; merely stating the fact that the match was nearly concluded.
TJ glowered at the pieces spread across the chessboard. His black King was two spaces from the edge of the board which left him two more moves but it was hopeless unless his remaining two pawns suddenly became Queens. That would not happen since a white army stood between them and the far side of the board and his King would have run out of time. He sighed as he reached for his King and laid it on it’s side. The King began to dissolve.
TJ leaned back in the padded pilot’s seat. “Another one for you, Nora. What’s the record now?” The remaining pieces dissolved before the board itself disappeared.
“1,615 and 131. This makes 23 games since you last won against me. That was a little more than a month ago while we were mining the nickel-iron asteroid orbiting Quaoar. You celebrated by opening a bottle of 60-year-old McRae Moor. I still cannot understand why you would open a bottle of whisky worth a small fortune just to celebrate winning a game?”
“Just chalk it up to one of the many things that makes me charming. Too bad there’s no way you could taste it. Experience is the only way to understand scotch.” He sighed. “When do I get another handicap in our matches?”
Nora’s chuckle sounded through the dim cockpit. “I already play with a two-Rook handicap against you. What piece next? Bishop or Knight?”
“Oh, never mind. If I can’t win with that advantage, I should just quit the game. This is what I get for having you learn to play competitively against Kasparov VII.”
“I find it very unlikely that you would give up your primary diversion while the hold is only at 19% capacity. Boredom will drive you back to the game.” Chess was Nora’s passion and the years of working with TJ meant she knew his habits. “Another game?”
“Nah. How about putting something up on the main display. Any new signals out there?” Since beginning the mining contracts in the Kuiper Belt seven subjective years before, he had learned to appreciate the old television broadcasts that still bounced around the outer system. Nora now constantly scanned for the signals and recorded them.
“There are several complete shows that were recorded during our match. Which do you prefer: Gunsmoke or Jersey Shore? There are two complete shows of Gunsmoke and one of Jersey Shore. Additionally, we have sixteen new fragments of various shows. I will begin compositing them into the collection.”
“Thanks, Nora.” Jersey Shore, what little he had watched of it, seemed very strange and fit with the time it was made—during the years leading up to the collapse and Unification. He had no urge to see that. “Let’s watch some Gunsmoke. Is this one we’ve seen before or a new one?”
“This is a new one for the collection. The visual channel is monochrome.”
“Great!” He moved to the communications station and adjusted the seat back to a reclining position. “See if Julia would like to join us.”
“She is asleep, Boss. It is 0224.” The AI replied.
“No worries. Go ahead and start the show, please.” The main screen lit up and Matt Dillon sauntered into the dusty street of Dodge City. A nameless bad guy squared off down the street and they stared one another in the eye. They drew their handguns and a shot rang out. The marshal holstered his peacemaker and the show’s title in stylized letters appeared across the viewing area as the announcer introduced the show.
With the Nellie Cashman underway between groups of prospective mining bodies, ship’s routine was minimized and could be handled exclusively by Nora. There was little for the human crew to do but amuse themselves. Most crews opted for hibernation during the long reaches, but since his wife’s passing a decade before, TJ preferred to spend the time awake. His daughter, Julia, sometimes took the sleep but usually spent the time with her books and cello while he lost himself in the ancient television broadcasts.
The repeating tritones of the proximity alarm filled every corner of the ship. TJ burst from sleep in the comms station chair and trained reflexes immediately had him leaping to the holotank that displayed the sensors information.
“Nora! Turn off that damned alarm!” The sound dropped from life-threatening to merely painful as he slammed himself into the pilot’s seat and hit the switch on the armrest that activated the restraining belts. The red spot representing the incoming threat in the holotank display was moving faster than anything he had ever seen—more than twice that of the Nellie Cashman—on an intercept course for the small image of the mining vessel.
“Collision in forty-two seconds. Automated emergency response in nine seconds.” TJ heard no alarm in Nora’s voice despite knowing the automated maneuver would be so violent it would result in the deaths of the humans on board.
“Override automated response. Authorization Alpha-Two-Bear-Crimson-Omega.” He recited the shipmaster authorization code as quickly as he could. The flashing countdown in the upper part of the holotank stopped at two seconds.
“Collision in thirty seconds.” Nora stated flatly.
Julia flew from the passageway into the cockpit and angled for the navigation instruments. With a quick glance at the numbers she shouted over the alarm while activating the restraints, “Alter heading twenty-five degrees right five degrees down and burn engines at capacity-plus for twenty-two seconds. Execute!” The delta-v and course alteration slammed TJ and Julia into their harnesses and the ship shook violently as the engines strained to overcome inertia.
“Will it be enough?” TJ shouted over the screaming ship. The sound of metal crashing against a bulkhead echoed down the passageway and through the open hatch.
“We’ll know in fifteen seconds.” Julia’s eyes were locked on the readings and the changing numbers.
“Securing compartment hatch.” Nora’s voice came from the speakers above their heads. The sound of loose equipment and cookware slamming into the hatch door barely drowned out the screeching protest of the straining ship. “This is going to be very close!” Anxiety finally crept into Nora’s voice. TJ’s hand clasped Julia’s. There was nothing left to do but watch and wait.
The baleful red dot sped closer to the center of the holotank. The trajectory of the threat did not change. The main screen showed no change from the pinpoints of stars. The counters for time and distance both sped toward zero. The timer froze at zero and flashed red while the distance to the threat changed from red to yellow and began climbing rapidly. The proximity alarm went silent.
“How close was it?” Julia’s face glistened with perspiration and her hands shook.
“At its nearest approach, the object was seventy-four meters from our hull.” Nora stated the fact flatly. “External visual sensors recorded it.”
“Meters?” TJ was incredulous. The Nellie was only just over two hundred meters. His face went pale. “Put it on the main screen.” The forgotten television show—an episode of M*A*S*H—faded away and was replaced by a barren star field. No movement could be detected until the whole field shuddered and the pinpoints of the stars began to slowly rotate left and slightly up.
“Enhance the object and magnify, please.” Julia requested. The stars faded to half brightness. A very dim spot in the upper right part of the screen, easily mistakable for a speck of dust had Nora not kept the ship spotless, began to grow brighter and a transparent dark red reticle appeared over it. The dot grew slightly in size before seeming to dart across the screen in a tiny blur.
“Replay the last five seconds at ten percent speed.” TJ stated the command as he stepped closer to the display. The blur jumped back to where it had been just before it’s incredible transit of the screen and began to move forward again. While moving slower than before it was still an indistinguishable blur. “What’s it’s velocity?”
“.916C and slowing.” Nora replied.
“Slowing?” Julia asked. “There’s nothing close with enough mass to slow something at that speed. Is it braking?”
“Confirmed. Velocity is now .910C.” Nora began streaming the telemetry data to the screen.
TJ’s face was a caricature of confusion. “What the hell?”
Nora replied. “It’s a communications drone. Encrypted transmission just began. Recording.” A moment later, “It’s from one of the long distance survey probes. A second transmission from the drone has been detected. It is also encrypted. Recording. The first transmission is standard government encryption. The second one is different. It will take me awhile to decrypt the message.”
“It’s not like we don’t have the time; we’re still more than a month from the next ore bodies.” Julia pulled her hair back into a pony tail. “Did we take any structural damage from the course change?”
“None detected. The change was within the stress tolerances of the ship’s structural integrity. Calculating course correction. Correction thrust and vector calculated. Shall I execute?” Nora calmly responded.
TJ rubbed his face with the palms of his hands, “Make it gentle, please. I’ve had my quota of excitement for the day. I have a feeling we’ll be spending the rest of the day putting the galley back into shape if we can get that hatch open.”
The thrusters nudged the Nellie Cashman into a new trajectory toward their original destination as TJ and Julia began to clear the passageway through the center of the ship.
Communications drone CD42816-H was not equipped with even a rudimentary AI. Its programming dictated that it return to the Sol system and deliver the information it contained. Any navigational adjustments it made were directly in response to gravitational fields that would affect it’s destination—a stable orbit around Mars. Once there its databanks would be retrieved by the orbital science station for further analysis.
When the sensors indicated that the drone had successfully passed through the Oort cloud, it began to transmit it’s encrypted data. The data would be decrypted by the science station and studied prior to the drone’s arrival in orbit.
None of the drone’s sensors detected its near collision with the small mining ship.