The Perseus Problem


Mike Rivera focused his attention on the small display screens in the instrument panel in front of him. Statistical data and graphical representations, continuously updated in real time, reported every element of the current flight status. At the present altitude of 4,000 meters, and in the dim light of the failing sun, little detail of the terrain below could be made out with the naked eye. Still, surveying the ground with his own eyes from time to time was something Mike could not resist.
When he did glance through the cockpit window, the surface below appeared a mottled patchwork of black, and blueish-white shapes. He could barely distinguish between mountains and valleys. But he knew that the black parts were dry land, mostly solid rock, and the blueish-white parts were patches of snow, their hue a result of the twilight.
“A-O-I-Six negative, Captain. Proceeding to A-O-I-Seven,” said a voice through the speakers in Mike’s helmet. The voice belonged to Ryan Katter, his navigation officer, seated at his station aft of the flight deck. The navigation console was built into the port side wall, so Ryan’s seat was positioned at a 90-degree angle counter-clockwise to Mike’s seat and directly behind it.
“Copy that, NAV. Proceeding to A-O-I-Seven,” Mike acknowledged.
The alphanumeric characters referred to 14 “Areas of Interest,” selected after multiple orbits of the planet the day before. Remote sensors had identified several small locations on the surface where the temperature was higher than the immediately surrounding areas. However, these could just as easily be attributable to natural geothermal processes as they could to artificial heat sources.
Mike and his crew observed no lights on the surface, no radio transmissions, and no evidence of orbiting artificial satellites. It appeared this planet was void of civilization. The only way to be certain, though, was to take a look from a closer vantage point.
Prior to deorbiting, the crew deployed a small buoy satellite. It had been programmed with the coordinates of where their ship, the Widowmaker, intended to fly, and it would serve as a ground-to-orbit communications link, even though there was no one to communicate with within light years. Space exploration safety protocol dictated that you never went anywhere without leaving breadcrumbs behind.
As an added precaution, the small spacecraft, Widowmaker, descended over a large frozen ocean before proceeding to one of the continents. The thought was that if there were any observers down there, it would be far less likely to find them out on the frozen ocean than on solid ground. Thus, it was hoped, the Widowmaker’s descent and approach would be undetected by any indigenous, intelligent life.
A coastal mountain range shouldered the entire west side of the land mass and spanned close to 1,000 kilometers inland. It was similar to North America’s Rocky Mountains on Earth, only much wider.
East of the mountain range the land flattened out somewhat. It was in these foothills that the first few of their targets were located. Others lay beyond, some to the north and south of the original eastbound flight path.
The average surface temperature was minus 33 degrees Celsius. It was known, however, that this planet wasn’t always this cold and dark. Remote observations made by near-Earth deep space telescopes had captured some key data about this planet. For instance, its orbit around its sun was elliptical and took 17 Earth years to complete. For much of that period it was a long way out from the star, well outside the so-called “Goldilocks Zone.” But then it would make its way back to perihelion and would warm for several Earth years. The ocean, the surface of which was now water ice, would melt, as would the snow and ice covering most of the land masses. Only the polar caps would remain frozen.
The planet’s axis was tilted only slightly, so the seasons did not alternate between hemispheres as they do on Earth.
The composition of the atmosphere was very similar to Earth’s. So too was the barometric pressure. This was an excellent candidate for a world capable of supporting life, at least during its warmer period. But what life could survive the long, cold winter? The scientists at the company Mike worked for had a theory about that, and that’s what Mike and his crew of two others were here to either prove or dispel.
“A-O-I-Seven, 200 klicks,” Ryan intoned.
“Roger, 200 klicks,” Mike acknowledged.
Verbally reading out the statistics was a formality, a way of reconciling the flight recorder data in the event of an investigation. It was unnecessary as far as the crew was concerned. They could read speed, elevation, ambient temperature, proximity to landmarks, and a plethora of other details on the display panels. The green contour lines of a 3-D rendering of the terrain below mapped out incremental changes in elevation. Infrared sensors detected changes in surface temperature and another display illustrated it in bright primary colors.
Mike noted surface features as represented on the display, occasionally turning his head to look past his left shoulder and through the cockpit canopy window to find the corresponding features in the gloom below. He was disinclined to put his complete trust in machines, so it comforted him to verify the screen’s information in this way.
The third crew member was Mike’s co-pilot, Aiden Asher. The title was more of a tradition than a necessity. Redundancy had always been the golden rule in space travel. The truth was this ship didn’t need a co-pilot at all. In fact, it didn’t require a pilot. Everything was controlled by an artificial intelligence and its network of innumerable sensors and computers. The AI was quite capable of flying the ship autonomously, as it did even now. The humans would only intervene if necessary, and only if an unusual situation arose in which a decision contrary to the computer’s had to be made.
Each crewmember had two or more roles. Aiden’s dual purpose was to serve as science officer. Ryan doubled as the communications officer, and he was a linguist. Mike was also a medical doctor and had military training.
Theirs had been a stealth mission at both ends. They had left the solar system in secrecy, and it was equally imperative that they did not reveal themselves to the indigenous life form that was suspected to exist on this planet. It was a reconnaissance mission only. If Mike’s superiors were correct, this was a dangerous mission as well.
The transit between Earth and this as-yet unnamed planet in the M37 open cluster, or NGC 2099, of the Auriga constellation had taken practically no time at all thanks to technology acquired from a benevolent, advanced alien species during an encounter many years ago. Earth’s faster-than-light technology had become obsolete practically overnight at that time, although application of the new technology had been accomplished only recently. The Interplanetary Exploration Consortium had issued a controversial moratorium on interstellar flight in the meantime.
The longest parts of this journey had been the ferrying out from the hangar in Earth space, at subluminal speed, then the approach from the hyperspace transit exit point to this planet. The hundreds of light years between were crossed in an instant, which also facilitated doing it in a vessel a fraction of the size of those typical of Earth’s relatively brief FTL era.
“A-O-I-Seven, 100 klicks,” Ryan announced. “12 minutes.”
“Roger, 100 klicks, 12 minutes,” Mike acknowledged.
Out of all the candidates, area of interest number seven was the one Mike thought most promising, based on the surveillance data acquired from orbit. It was near the junction of what appeared to be two major, albeit frozen rivers.
Many Earth cities had been built alongside rivers, particularly at the junction of main arteries or where they emptied into lakes or oceans. Small boats, canoes, rafts, and barges utilized bodies of water within land masses as early forms of transportation, and cities grew from trading posts at these natural crossroads. Overland routes often intersected the waterways at these points as well.
Despite a lack of direct evidence of civilization, there was a distinct increase in the surface temperature for a few kilometers right around the base of an escarpment near the junction of these two rivers. The absence of detectable gas emissions in this area suggested it was not a natural geothermal vent. This was an ideal location for a city, but the temperature was the only observable clue. Even with their most powerful telescopes, there were no signs of civilization visible from orbit.
With about 120 percent of Earth’s size and mass, the planet’s gravity was a comfortable 1.1 gees. At 38 hours for one complete revolution, its axial rotation was much slower than Earth’s. The advantage this gave Mike and his crew was that they would be able to cover much of the ground they wanted to explore while still in daylight, as feeble as it was.
“Target in sight,” said Ryan.
“Let’s hope for better results this time,” Aiden replied.
“Copy that,” said Mike. He eyed the monitor. It was still showing nothing but the irregular, green lines defining the topography-no straight lines or geometric shapes. While finding concrete evidence of an intelligent species would render the mission a success, Mike was somewhat apprehensive about what could accompany achieving that success. Would it be possible to make such a discovery without themselves being detected?
Ryan and Aiden had trained with Mike for this mission. However, Mike was privy to at least one aspect of the mission that the other two were not. Specifically, the fact that the species that was suspected to inhabit this planet was thought to be hostile. It troubled Mike that this had been withheld from his crewmates, but his military training dictated that he would not second-guess the rationale of his superiors.
For their part, Ryan and Aiden approached their roles like soldiers. They knew their duties and would execute them competently, without question or hesitation. Mike considered these two among the best of the candidates that could have been selected for this mission. A loyalty had developed between the three of them during their training, and Mike felt that withholding information from them constituted a betrayal of that loyalty.
Furthermore, he believed that knowing the nature of the danger would not have made any difference to Ryan’s or Aiden’s commitment to the mission. Ryan had once even commented that if they did find intelligent life, they should not assume it to be friendly or peaceful. Aiden had agreed, noting that the Widowmaker was not fitted with any weaponry. They unanimously conceded that the stealthy nature of the mission must be maintained. As much as it did not sit well with him, Mike had not divulged that extra detail he knew, deferring instead to the wisdom of his superiors.
“Definitely some kind of heat source down there,” Ryan reported. “Check out the infrared. Nine degrees warmer a few hundred meters from the river. Still well below freezing, but warmer.”
“Looks fairly localized,” Mike observed, checking the infrared display.
“It starts warming up in that flatter area between the river and the ridge. You’re right, it’s pretty localized. Dissipates quickly farther from the base of the ridge a bit to the south, into the valley floor. Must be an air current carrying it.”
“Big enough area for a small town,” Aiden commented, “except I don’t see any town down there.”
“Could be just geothermal vents,” Ryan replied.
“Yeah, but I’d expect to see a pronounced hotspot around a vent,” said Mike, “or maybe some visible steam if it was a hot spring, but I’m not seeing any of that. Just a broad warm area around the base of that escarpment. And the sensors aren’t picking up any concentrations of gasses.”
They continued in silence for a long moment, studying the display screens intently. A few minutes later, as they approached the far edge of A-O-I-7’s perimeter, Mike decided he was not satisfied.
“Let’s make another pass,” he said, “only slower, and from lower down this time.”
“You read my mind,” said Ryan. “We shouldn’t necessarily expect to see Earth-like cities, with skyscrapers and all that. At this altitude, we might not be able to distinguish artificial structures from natural ones if they’re small or if they don’t adhere to conventional geometric architecture. Still, this was one of the most compelling locations, in my opinion.”
“Exactly,” said Mike. “Take her down to 1,200 meters. The ground is relatively flat for a good distance. There’s no risk of slamming into a mountain if we stick to the plain between the river and the escarpment. We’ll swing around and circle the area so we can examine it from all angles.”
“Switching to manual. Descending to 1,200,” said Aiden as he pulled slowly back on a joystick. “Decreasing speed to 280.”
“Nice and quiet,” Mike added. There’d be no chance of generating a sonic boom at 280 KPH and the Widowmaker’s engines ran very quietly when cruising. The hull’s exterior was designed to be practically invisible to radar, so they could avoid detection to all but the naked eye, assuming that eye functioned like a human eye.
Mike let Aiden fly. Auto pilot was turned off. Aiden approached the outskirts of A-O-I-7 and executed a gentle banking maneuver to circle the area. “12 by 12,” he announced, indicating that they were circling 1,200 meters distant from the perimeter as well as at an altitude of 1,200 meters.
“Copy, 12 by 12,” Mike acknowledged, confirming Aiden’s figures with the statistics on his display. Mike turned his head to the left to look through the cockpit window. He could see more of the ground now that the craft was banking that way. He thought he could make out trees along the banks of the river as they approached the junction of its tributary. But what kind of trees could survive a 10- to 12-year-long winter at temperatures in the tens of degrees below zero? He still could not see anything artificial down there.
Mike was about to say something when a brilliant flash of light illuminated both the ground and the bottom of the clouds above. It diminished as quickly as it arrived but left a purple imprint on his vision.
“What was that? Lightning?” Mike asked.
“I don’t know,” Aiden replied, “I didn’t-“
“Bogie approaching from six o’clock!” Ryan interrupted, alarmed. “Closing fast. Impact in nine seconds!”
“Evasive!” Mike shouted. “Taking control, hold on!” He pushed his joystick hard to the right. The Widowmaker obeyed and veered off to the starboard side and started to roll like a jet fighter performing stunts at an airshow.
“Bogie matching course!” Ryan exclaimed. “We can’t shake it.”
Mike pushed the joystick forward to accelerate quickly, and he instantly felt the gee force pushing him hard into his seat. He pulled another stick toward him to command the craft to gain altitude.
Ryan counted down the seconds. “Three, two, one-“
There was an explosion and the craft jerked violently and began to lose altitude.
“Right rudder and engine two lost,” Ryan managed to belt out in spite of the strain of the gee forces and the roar of rushing air. Mike’s display flashed multiple red warnings. “Compensating,” Mike yelled. He tried to stabilize the craft, but it wasn’t responding. He fixated on the display screens rather than looking through the window at the spinning scene outside. The craft was rolling uncontrollably, making one complete rotation every two seconds. Sky and ground swapped places with each other every second, making it too disorienting to look through the canopy above him.
Several new red warning lamps began flashing on the instrument panel. Aiden had a matching set of instruments on his side, and he must have noted one of these warnings in particular at the same time Mike did.
“Fuel leak,” he said frantically. “Almost empty.”
Mike quickly assessed the situation. They were losing altitude and even if he could regain control, when they ran out of fuel they would crash. “Prepare to eject,” he said, defeated. He saw Aiden turn to look at him for a moment, but then he turned back to his instrument panel and flipped some switches.
“Ejectors armed,” Aiden said. A klaxon sounded and the interior lighting turned red.
Unable to turn around to look at Ryan behind him, Mike yelled, “You with us, Cat Man?”
“Roger, captain,” Ryan confirmed.
“Okay gentlemen,” Mike shouted over the din, “we trained for this. I’ll see you on the ground.” He flipped up the clear plastic cover and pushed his eject button. The canopy blew away and a violent rush of freezing air filled the cabin. Mike watched his display and heard the AI’s synthetic voice, “Eject, eject, three, two, one-“
What happened next was a blur, but Mike knew what to expect. In a matter of a few seconds after the canopy blasted away from the craft, he and his two shipmates would be catapulted into the air, still strapped to their seats. They would likely pass out from the gee force. A parachute would deploy, and he would fall to the ground at a speed slow enough that he should survive impact without serious injury. Meanwhile, a stimulant would be injected into his bloodstream so that he could regain his senses before landfall.
It was like snapping out of a daydream. For a moment Mike thought he was watching a movie or a television program, as if what he saw was happening to someone else. Then the stimulant kicked in, and he realized it was real. He was still strapped to his seat, but the interior of the Widowmaker was no longer surrounding him. He was in the open sky, and the ground below was rapidly rising up to meet him.
He craned his neck to try to look above, but his helmet restricted his field of vision. He did however catch a glimpse of the leading edge of his massive parachute, which was all he really needed to see. Then he surveyed the skies to his left and right, looking for the parachutes of his fellow crew members and the emergency supply package that should have automatically been jettisoned with them. He saw nothing but empty sky, but he did not have time to dwell on it, as the proximity alerts began sounding in his helmet speakers.
He was thankful to see that there was nothing but wide-open space below; no obstacles or other hazards that could interfere with his landing. Had there been, the seat assembly had parachute manipulation controls he could use to steer a short distance to a more favorable site, but this was not going to be necessary.
Mike braced for impact. He heard a hissing noise and instantly felt like he was being pushed into his seat. Small thrusters in the underside of the seat bottom had fired to soften the blow. Mike felt a dull thud as the seat touched down, then it rolled over on to its left side and skidded for several meters. Air bags deployed all around him but instantly deflated to prevent the seat assembly and its passenger from bouncing excessively.
He heard a pop as small charges severed the parachute cables. The cables slithered along the ground ahead as the parachute, still descending from high above, pulled them away. After several seconds he saw the parachute flatten on the ground and come to a rest. At that point, all became still and quiet.

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