Writing Prompt

by w3woody

In response to a writing prompt: “A ship is drifting into the solar system, Earths first contact. The ship is empty.”

The first observatory to spot The Object was the Keck Observatory on Hawaii’s Maunakea summit, and like new discoveries, was done entirely by accident. The Object was spotted during an observation of a primordial galaxy, and showed up as a glitch in the data; an error in the spectral analysis of a 13 billion year old galaxy.

Normally such minor glitches are ignored. Sometimes things just happen: a ripple in the atmosphere, a bird flying near the field of view, or even a microwave oven turned on for a hungry popcorn munching grad student who forgot the blackout period have caused glitches in the data. This observation would have also been ignored if it weren’t for a bright-eyed and busy-tailed grad student who was working that night, and who wanted to know the source of the glitch.

The Object was eventually named the Donner-Brand object–after the persistent grad student and the professor who insisted on credit (despite drinking Mai Tais at a local bar when the object was eventually spotted)–had its trajectory plotted, and other scientists started investigating the material composition of the newly discovered asteroid. Early theories had the object’s origin as somewhere within the Oort Cloud beyond Neptune’s orbit, and the fact that it would eventually pass within 1 AU of the Earth made the object of particular interest to observers who wanted to understand the composition of the dust cloud beyond the rim of the Solar System.

It was also fortunate for those observers that a joint NASA/ESA mission was on the drawing board to test a series of new space probes for gathering materials from asteroids for space mining. Named the Gayatri Project, a large Saturn rocket would launch with more than two dozen small EM-drive equipped probes who would meet various targets, sample them, and return the samples back to Earth. It wasn’t hard to ask the committee to add Donner-Brand to the list of potential targets.

It wasn’t until Donner-Brand passed within the orbit of Saturn a decade after its discovery that scientists started to wonder at its composition.

By this time Professor Suzanne Donner was a full time lecturer and astronomer who spent a considerable amount of time observing Oort cloud objects and particularly the object that was named after her.

“What makes Donner-Brand rather interesting”, she told a room full of professors at a small gathering to discuss Gayatri targets, subconsciously blushing at the self-reference, “is that it has an extremely variable albedo, almost as if the object had large smooth surfaces rather than the typical pitted surfaces we would expect of an asteroid.”

“We don’t know what to make of this”, she continued after a pause. “But the sheering forces necessary to create large smooth surfaces on an asteroid suggest some yet-unknown phenomenon at play.”

It was her talk, combined with other observations that the asteroid contained a number of very interesting metallic alloys, which convinced the Gayatri project managers to target the largest of the tugs to Donner-Brand.

A year later, as final plans were being put into place for the various tugs, the first images of Donner-Brand came in from the Mars orbiting telescope platform.

The reason for the highly variable albedo became apparent.

Before the observations could be made public, Professor Donner found herself along with a half dozen other scientists and the project leads of the Gayatri Project summoned by the President of the United States and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“So what do we know?” asked General Perry asked. Perry was one of the primary advisers to President Alexander.

Professor Hayes cleared his throat a little nervously. The idea of a bunch of civilian scientists being summoned by the President–and it was clear the “invitation” was not optional–was quite intimidating.

But not as intimidating as the long-range fuzzy photograph of Donner-Brand now being projected behind him.

“The object appears to be some sort of space craft, about the size of a Boeing 747. There are an array of four cylindrical objects at what appears to be the back of the craft, and a bulbous cylinder at the front. We theorize that the cylinders at the back are some form of…”

General Perry cut him off. “Is it a threat?”

Professor Donner spoke up. “We don’t think so. The object is not exhibiting any sort of thermal radiation; it appears to be as cold as any asteroid we’ve observed before. We are not receiving any radio waves or detecting any motion. I think it’s dead.”

General Perry: “Could this be a ruse? Could there be some sort of automated system waiting to wake up?”

Professor Diaz spoke up. He was one of the observers at Keck Observatory who had been watching the object as it approached its perihelion within the orbit of Mars. “I don’t think so. Remember, any electronic components would generate some heat–and given the shape of the object, that heat would not be easily radiated away. Donner-Brand is not showing any infrared radiation as far as we have been able to detect.”

“So,” General Warren, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, turned and faced the Gayatri Project representatives. “Can we tug this thing back to Earth?”

A handful of scientists on the other side of the table huddled together, and started scribbling notes on a series of papers. A couple of tablets came out, a bunch of ellipses were drawn on a bunch of papers, and finally Professor Shaw, the team lead, piped up.


That earned a scowl from a handful of the generals at the table.

“Look,” Professor Shaw stared down the half of the table overflowing with brass. “We’re a privately financed project, so even assuming I could get permission from the corporations and governments funding our project, which I very much doubt, I would need to share that discovery with everyone who helped to finance our project.

“Second, the best we can do is perhaps alter the orbit of the object to place it between Mars and Earth, so we can go back at a later date with another tug to pull it back to the Earth. But we’d have to accelerate the launch by…” Professor Shaw turned to one of the members of his team, who piped up with “about 4 months”.

Shaw turned to face the General. “We’d need to move our launch date up by 4 months.”

“What would that take?”

“Well,” Professor Shaw subconsciously rubbed his chin. “We’d need to get more manpower to build the tugs, and we’d need to move the launch site, and ideally we’d need to assemble the rocket faster and…”

General Warren raised a hand and stopped Shaw. “How much money.”

Shaw huddled together with the other scientists, then spoke up.

“I don’t know.”

“Guess,” an increasingly irritated General Warren asked.

“Perhaps $80 billion?” Shaw cautiously replied.

Murmuring broke out around the room. At the end of the table, President Alexander stood up. The rest of the room fell into silence.

“This is potentially the single most important discovery in the history of mankind. You’ll get your money and whatever manpower we can provide.”

Such a discovery could not be kept secret for long, and President Alexander knew it. Phone calls were made from the White House, assurances were made, invitations extended to various professors and politicians from the all of the Group of Eleven countries to discuss sharing the data and an potential economic windfall that may come from first contact.

It was also clear from the discussion that President Alexander would need to put someone in charge of the second mission to retrieve the object. While he wan’t a scientist, his grandfather worked for a shipping company and his father’s political aspirations were fueled by meeting truckers and longshoremen–so he knew something about logistics.

You don’t just park something at a depot if you don’t know how you’re going to move it to the store.

How we’d pull in the object–well, that was a job for the eggheads at NASA.

The advantage of having two dozen tugs designed originally for two dozen targets swarming a single tumbling object is that you can gather observations from two dozen different vantage points rather quickly.

With Donner-Brand, this was extremely useful.

Despite its size, the object was significantly lighter than the scientists had calculated–in large part because a space craft is not an asteroid. Spaceships are hollow, not solid. It also helped that the object was not tumbling very rapidly; it allowed the tugs to stop the rotation of the craft so as to control it better.

Each tug had a small artificial intelligence on board, so they could quickly swarm Donner-Brand. One of the tugs landed on a forward windshield and was able to send pictures of the interior back. It appeared to be empty. Along the top there appeared to be several recessed hatches; one of the scientists theorized they may have been escape pods. Scorching existed alongside the port side of the hull.

It took three months of continuous thrusting to alter the orbit of Donner-Brand, at which time all but one of the tugs were completely drained, still attached like so many electronic barnacles. The last remaining operating tug confirmed the orbit was relatively stable.

Of course President Alexander lost the re-election to a fear-mongering Presidential candidate who used fear of E.T. to win the election. Politics plays out like that sometimes. The Russian Federation also saw a similar overturn of its leadership based on provincial fears–but all of this was theater.

In private the Donner-Brand spaceship was eventually brought into orbit around the Earth, scientists investigating every square inch of the craft. They discovered the craft was apparently designed to hold a dozen crew-members; the shape of what appeared to be chairs suggested they were four-legged creatures, though no images of them appeared in the databanks of the onboard computers.

Much of the space ship used technologies that could be easily extrapolated from existing Earth-based tech: air scrubbers used slightly more efficient compounds to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. The windshield proved to be a polymer compound not too dissimilar to existing clear polymers known to Earth scientists.

The computer interfaces were nearly completely indecipherable; based on trinary logic the computer displays appeared to be full of static, at least until a color-blind linguist noticed that the static was actually a sort of cursive language written horizontally in one color and vertically in another. Once people figured out the vertical writing were interface hints, and the horizontal writing was status reports, understanding the intent became far less difficult.

What excited everyone, however, was the devices underneath the floor plates which generated gravity. The technology appeared to be related to the technology which powered the four massive engines at the back: same principles, different techniques to different ends.

That alone took three decades of the most cleaver scientists to fully understand–and even then the best any scientist could do to explain the phenomenon involved a few short-cuts and a lot of hand-waving about 13-dimensional particles.

But engineers, on the other hand, don’t need to understand quantum mechanics to know if you dope a piece of silicon with phosphorus and boron the right way you can make a transistor.

And engineers don’t need to understand Unified Field Physics to know if you wrap copper coils with the right shape around a special organic compound, then excite the compound with radiation while simultaneously electrifying the coils, it appears to generate gravity. Shape them one way and you get a 1 G pull to a floor plate. Shape them another way and you get a reactionless drive as your spaceship “falls” towards its target.

A lot of experimentation later, and they learned how to reverse the effect: allowing objects to “fall away” from a massive gravity well, in an effect that left the scientists who thought they worked the theories out scratching their heads.

Sixty years after insisting on wasting everyone’s time tracking down a spectral glitch at the Keck Observatory as an undergraduate, Professor Suzanne Donner stood on an observation deck, looking at the stars. In space, with the sun blotted out by Jupiter, the stars were remarkably bright.

They never learned where the spacecraft came from, or why it eventually fell towards our Sun. Some thought the spacecraft had been floating for eons. Others wondered if it were even real. A few worried that its owners would be back–and deep underneath the Cheyenne Mountain complex, an underground bunker of sorts was busy constructing a fleet of spacecraft capable of defending the Earth. Few (including Professor Suzanne) knew of the complex.

But it didn’t matter to the folks at the Jupiter station.

First contact was not what anyone had expected. It wasn’t an alien invasion force here for our water or the molten core of our planet. It wasn’t a bunch of bug-eyed monsters looking to steal our women or a race of peaceful, logical people seeking to “live long and prosper.”

It was a junked spacecraft that looked like it had been hit by an asteroid or a piece of space debris or some sort of unknown weapon.

A junked spacecraft that now allowed Professor Donner to retire amongst the stars.