Sunday, April 4, 2010

Hope Platform

Thomas looked out the window of the shuttle’s main cabin and viewed the round, canister appearance of the station that would become him home for the two years. Despite looking like a mile long soda can, it was the most advanced space station the Earth had ever seen. The outer hull was made out of a mineral that was discovered on the Moon, and scientists named lunarium. It was bright white, highly reflective and amazingly heat resistant. Lunarium had resisted temperatures as high as twenty thousand degrees. That made it perfect for the job they needed to do.

The shuttle rotated as it aligned itself with the station for docking, and the Earth came into view. Thomas shook his head. Even at this height, it was easy to see the damage. The Earth was no longer the blue and green ball that he had seen in pictures from his youth. Though there was still green on it, most of the surface was the soft brown of deserts, and even the water was more a sickly green than blue anymore. Hope Platform represented their best hope to reverse that damage, and make the Earth green anymore.

Thomas wasn’t a scientist, so he wasn’t real clear on the details behind the idea, but basically, the lab coats back home wanted he and his team to gather Solar Plasma, or the stuff the sun was made up of, and bring it back to Earth. They were going to use the raw star stuff to power some terra-forming machine that would artificially create conditions that would allow the plant life to grow again, which would start a natural process that would reverse the damage done to the planet. His team had two years to get there, grab all the plasma they could gather, and get back. It was nine months there, and nine months back, and six months doing the actual gathering.

It sounded like a long time, but six month was the minimum needed with this station to gather the amounts of plasma needed to make the plan work. At the same time, they didn’t want to take any longer; the decay on the planet was getting faster and faster each and every passing month. His crew would be working hard, and working around the clock, to get the job done. He also had orders to try and pull some extra plasma, just in case. He tried to tell his superior that the eggheads had already figured in extra to his team’s pull totals, but the general didn’t care. He wanted extra, and he expected his soldier to agree. And so Thomas did.

Of course, now that they were on the actual mission, the general wasn’t around to make sure Thomas followed through. He would work as hard as he could to meet the quota the scientist’s had set for him, and if possible, get more, but he wasn’t going to push him men past exhaustion. This was too important to take stupid risks on. Thomas’s musings were interrupted by the shuttle completing its docking. He thanked the shuttle pilot, and climbed through the tube to his new home. On the other side of the airlock, he was greeted by a man in an orange NASA jumpsuit, who saluted him.

“Welcome to Hope Platform, Major,” he said.

Thomas saluted back. “Thank you, Captain, it’s my pleasure.”

Thomas let the captain lead him to the command deck. There, he met a few more members of his crew. Counting himself, there were twenty people here in all, the most that had ever manned a single space station at one time in human history. Most of them were from NASA and the Russian Space program, but a few were from Europe, Australia and China. This was truly an Earth wide endeavor. The past few months planetside had seen these twenty people train together for twelve hours a day. Thomas was the last on board the station, so at long last, they could get underway.

The next hour saw Thomas making sure all the pre-launch preparations had been made, and that the station was ready for the trip to the Sun. He went to the communication station and called back down to mission control.

“This is Major Thomas Parkman to Ground Control, we are ready for launch,” he said.

“This is Ground Control to Major Tom,” the voice from over the speaker came, singing the famous David Bowie song.

“Very funny Mission Control,” he replied. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard this joke.

“Sorry, Major,” the voice came again, sounding actually apologetic “I just couldn’t’ resist. Rodger on the launch status. Take off will proceed in T-minus five minutes and counting.

Now came the part Thomas hated most. The waiting. There would be lots of waiting on this trip, both there and on the way back, but he always hated waiting for launch. It didn’t seem to be as bad on the station, compared to being a shuttle with thousands of pounds of explosives strapped to your belly, but it was still there. The station was going to be sent to the moon in a similar fashion, with the exception that the booster was part of the station and was making the return trip with them.

Everyone on the station strapped in for the launch, most in their cabins, which were designed for just that. Thomas and the five command deck crew decided to stay on the command deck, to witness the launch from the best seats in the house. It didn’t take long for the final count down to come in. It was repeated by the young Chinese lady sitting at the communications station.

“Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.”

Thomas always held his breath at this point.

“Six. Five.”

He gripped the arm rests of his chair harder than was required. His eyes closed despite his desire to see this launch.

“Four. Three. Two.”

He said a silent prayer, for the success of this launch, this mission and the safety of his crew.

“One. Ignition!”

He felt the engine behind the station light, rumbling through the whole mile long structure. Even though a massive booster was pushing the station away from the scaffolding they were currently attached to with massive force, the process looked painfully slow from the inside. Inertia was also lessened in the zero gravity of space. He was pushed into his seat, sure, but it was for a brief time compared to Earth launches, and with nowhere near as much force. But it still seemed slow. Perhaps it was the scenery. The stars and even the moon were further away than the ground, buildings and clouds that normally accompanied a launch. He checked the readings, however, and they had reached seven thousand miles per hour at the moment they were supposed to. The booster would push until they reached ten thousand, and then would shut off, conserving fuel and letting inertia push them through space.

The whole launch took about ten minutes before the booster shut off. It went as smoothly as could be expected, and when Mission Control announced that they were away, everyone inside the command center cheered, including Thomas. He decided right then to send out message to the crew.

“This is Major Thomas Parkman,” he said. “We’re away. I’m declaring the next two hours open hours for celebration purposes. We’ll be getting in twenty hour work days soon enough, let’s take some time now to celebrate our successful beginning.”

The crew let out another cheer. This was pretty much expected. While the schedule did call for some tests to be run for mission control, they wouldn’t need to report on any of them for an hour anyway. They could wait.

“A most auspicious beginning, Major,” said the only other person left in command after the announcement.

“Indeed, Dr. Jones,” Thomas said. He looked over his shoulder at the tall, muscular blond woman from Finland, Heidi Jones. She was a top astrophysicist and engineer, and one of the scientists’ that had come up with this plan. The device that would be used to extract the plasma from the sun was her invention. And she also looked like the classic pictures of the valkyries from Norse myths to Thomas. She was also his second in command on this mission, being the mission expert on the extraction processes, and directly in charge of the civilian members of the crew. Over the past few months he had gained a deep respect for her, not only a s a scientist, but as a leader.

“There’s something bothering you,” she said suddenly.

He looked at her in surprise. “Am I that obvious?”

“Well, maybe not to anyone else,” she laughed, “but you forget how much time we spent training together to be ready for this mission the past few months. I know you as well as I know my husband.”

He nodded, and then sighed. “Just before launch, one of the mission control techs made a Major Tom joke.”

“You said that would happen,” she said.

“Yeah, but right now, I have another line from that song going through my head,” he said, “one that was said by Major Tom himself.”

“’Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do,’” she quoted, speaking the line rather than singing.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” he said.

“Listen, this is a difficult mission we’re taking on,” she said, patting him on the back. “Literally the fate of the planet rests on our shoulders. If you didn’t feel worried or nervous, I would be worried about you. But, really, worrying now, at the beginning of this mission, isn’t going to do any good. We still got nine months before we even reach the moon, you really want to start worrying now? Besides, you got me to help out. What could go wrong?”

He looked at her, a wide smile across her face. It was infectious, and he found it hard to stay sullen in its light. He let in and smiled back.

“There we go,” she said. “Now, what say you and I go join in the festivities you just initiated? We can go for about a half hour, and then come back up here to run the tests that NASA will be expecting.”

“Deal,” he said, and they linked arms, ready to enjoy themselves for the brief time they’ve allowed. She was right; there would be plenty of time to worry later.

“By the way,” she said as they were leaving the command center, “You do know that song is about drug abuse, right?”

He laughed.

The next nine months were long and tedious, even if they were kept busy. NASA and other international space agencies had the crew running various tests and collecting data that would otherwise be unavailable. They felt that if the mission was a success, the information gained from this mission would be invaluable, and thus too much to resist. Plus, besides training for the actual mission once they got to the Sun, it gave the crew something to do. There were times when Thomas felt that the crew would have been at each other’s throats were it not for the work. Even with only 20 people, the station began to feel like a small town.

Then came the big day, when they were about to enter the Sun’s corona. It was truly an amazing site. Waves of plasma rose and fell, heights measured in miles, crashing into each other. The colors were amazing as well, bright reds and deep yellows, brilliant oranges and even blinding whites were all visible. Everyone that wasn’t actively on duty at that point was in the mess deck, watching out the observation windows. Thomas, however, noted that the temperature in the ship was getting well over one hundred degrees. Most of the command crew had stripped down to tank tops. And it was about to get far hotter. He opened up ship wide communications.

“This is Major Parkman,” he said. “We are about to enter the corona, the hottest part of the sun, and as such, we will be closing the lunarium shielding over the observation ports. They will remain closed for the next six months, as we get to the work we came here for. Thank you.”

With that, he nodded to an air force officer at one of the command stations, who flicked a series of switches. A few moments later all the windows on the ship were soon blocked by white walls made of lunarium. From now on, they were blind, steering by sensors alone.

“Lieutenant,” he said to the man sitting at the pilot station, “prepare to ignite boosters on my mark and take is through the corona.”

This was potentially the most dangerous part of the mission. The temperatures at the corona reached thousands of degrees, and no one was sure if even the lunarium shielding they had created for the station would resist those temperatures for long. So the plan was to booster rocket it through, as fast as possible, and get to the considerably cooler photosphere, where the actual work would begin.

“Aye sir, boosters prepared,” the airman said.

“All hands, prepare for boosters,” Thomas said once more through the intercom. Then he nodded to the Lieutenant.”

“On my mark,” the officer said, “Three, two, one, ignition.”

There was a slight feeling of being pushed back into the ship, but lessened even compared to the initial firing of the rockets at launch nine months ago. The wall where the window was now had computer screens and view screens that showed infrared displays and particle counts and all kinds of other data that the sensors were taking in. What amazed Thomas while looking at them was that it didn’t look like they were moving on the screens. The same waves of plasma were there, or at least it seemed that way. After a few moments, he could see that the waves were changing, and getting more intense. It was also getting hotter inside the ship. The lunarium was an amazing mineral, given that they should have been boiled alive by now. Without it, this mission wouldn’t have even got off the ground. The temperature kept rising and rising, and Thomas began to worry that they had reached al limit with the moon metal.

“External hull temperature at nine thousand degrees Kelvin and holding,” the pilot said. “Internal temperature at three hundred twenty degrees Kelvin and also holding.”

Three hundred twenty degrees Kelvin. That was about one hundred seventeen degrees Fahrenheit, Thomas thought as sweat poured down his head and neck. He had little doubt that his shirt and pants were equally soaked. The pilot kept talking.

“Photosphere in T minus twenty,” he said. “Breaking thrusters engaged. T minus fifteen. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven.”

“Brace for impact,” Thomas said, and his words were relayed over the station.

“Five,” continued the pilot as if Thomas hadn’t spoke. “Two. One. Photosphere impact.”

And with that, they did impact. The whole station was jarred and Thomas bounced in his chair hard, hitting his back on the headrest as he came back down. The station bounced and rocked a few more times, reminding Thomas of the white water rafting trips he used to take with his wife, before she left him.

“Photosphere splashdown complete,” the pilot said as the station reached stability. “External temperature at one thousand nine hundred five degrees Kelvin. Internal temperature at three hundred and five degrees Kelvin. And it looks like we’re stable. We made it, sir,” he reported, turning in his seat to look Thomas in the eye. Thomas smiled and nodded at him, then flipped on the intercom again.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Hope Platform has landed.”

There was a cheer from the command crew, and Thomas imagined that it was being repeated throughout the station. A message was sent to Earth, though they wouldn’t get it for a few months. Then, they got down to the hard work of ‘drilling for plasma’ as Dr. Jones put it.

The actual process wasn’t drilling, of course. Nor was it strictly mining, as Thomas tended to think of it. The extraction machine that Heidi had invented was basically a gigantic vacuum, similar to the one used to clean your carpets back home. It would suck the plasma right off the photosphere of the sun and then put it into special magnetic storage containers. It took a crew of about six to run the machine at basic levels, and about nine to get it really going at maximum capacity. Almost everyone on board Hope Station was trained on its use and operation.

At first, things went slower than the plan. There were some mistakes with the drill use, and one accident that resulted in two of the crew injured and the drill arm damaged. Normally, Thomas though, they could send two men outside in suits to fix the arm, but in these conditions, it was impossible. Lunarium was fine as a metal, but not useable in a fabric. Without it to protect people from the heat, there was no way space walks were going to happen on this mission.

Heidi, however, reassured everyone that one damaged arm wasn’t a mission killer. They had built the maching so that it could operate with two arms down, if need be.

“Still,” she told everyone, “let’s try to not damage anymore, okay?”

Everyone laughed, but understood the sincerity of her comment. They all redoubled their efforts to work carefully and still efficiently. For the rest of that first week, progress was slow, but steady. Then, on the second week, they started to settle into a routine, and progress was increased. They were slightly behind schedule, but catching up. If things continued at this pace, they would be back on schedule by the end of the month, and possibly ahead of schedule by the end of the next month. Thomas was elated at the news. This might just actually work.

A week later, they made a startling discovery.

“Major,” came the cry of one of the scientists as he ran into the command center, out of breath. “Doctor Jones. You have got to come see this.”

Heidi caught the man before he stumbled into Thomas, something Thomas was grateful for. “David,” she said, “What is it?”

“It’s amazing,” David said, “the scientific find of the century. You’ve got to come see this, Dr. Jones. It will change the way we look at the universe!”

He started pulling Heidi out the door and down the hall. Heidi turned to look at Thomas and shrugged. Thomas shrugged back and started to follow after her.

“Lieutenant,” he said to the officer at the pilot stations, “you’re in command until I get back.”

“Aye sir,” came the reply.

Thomas and Heidi followed David down several hallways to the main sensor monitor room, where everything from temperature, hull integrity and scientific surveys of the sun’s surface are run. He walked straight to a computer console that was rather crowded with people, his whole team, Thomas realized. He and Heidi walked up to the computer and the crowed parted.

Thomas had little idea what he was looking at on the screen. It appeared to be just more pictures of the sun’s surface, thing he had seen hundreds of times. The display was on a spectrum that made everything look blue, except for a few patches of green flames that moved around the screen. He looked over to Heidi, who just shook her head and shrugged. Meanwhile, David was pointing to the screen with a look on his face as if that alone explained everything.

“What are we looking at here, David?” Heidi asked, shaking her head. “All I see is a spectrum shot of solar flares.”

“That’s just it, they’re not flares,” David said, pointing again to the screen. “We were studying a relatively stable part of the surface, trying to get a baseline reading to compare everything else to, when we saw these.”

He was pointing now to the green flames on the screen. Thomas squinted at the screen, and then blinked. He could swear that he saw little arms on the flames, and that they seemed to be moving with purpose, as opposed to random movements. Also, they seemed to be carrying things, a slightly different shade of green. And as he watched, they moved into an area with some larger yellow flames, but these seemed to be more regular shapped, like squares. Almost like… buildings.

“Okay,” he said, “I think I’ve been staring at these screens too long. Are those flames moving independently? And I’d swear that I saw… buildings”

David’s smile broadened, and he practically shouted, “Yes!”

“What?” Heidi looked closer at the screens, then at another one next to it with numbers running on it. She looked from one to the other for a few moments, than back to David.

“Are these accurate?” she said, and he nodded. It was an excited nod, almost self-satisfied. “That can’t be right.”

“Oh, they are,” he said, “we’ve been double and triple checking them all morning, and the numbers are consistent. Everything you’re looking at is real.”

“Wait, what are you saying?” Thomas asked, thoroughly confused.

“These readings indicate that these green colored flames here,” Heidi said, pointing to the screen, “have been moving independently of any outside influence for hours, and have done so in concert with each other. They appear to be operating on their own power and intelligence.”

“Wait, Intelligence?” Thomas said. “Like… aliens?”

Heidi and David both nodded, though where his was enthusiastic, here’s was worried.

“Aliens,” Thomas said, “on the sun.”

“I know,” David said, “It just blows your mind out of the water, doesn’t it?”

That wasn’t the half of it, David thought.

“We need to get on this in more detail,” Heidi was saying.

“Wait,” Thomas asked, beginning to understand. “Are those things really buildings? And those are tools in their hands? And more importantly, are they interfering with the drilling?”

David and Heidi looked at each other, then back at Thomas.

“We don’t really know,” David said, “about either. They’re obviously intelligent and those do, indeed, appear to be tools and buildings. They’re a few kilometers away from us, but we spotted a group of them headed this way, so if they’re not in our way, we are most certainly going to be in theirs shortly.”

“Okay,” Thomas said, the military man in him coming out as he clasped his hands behind his back and his voice became more authoritarian. “Until it is proved that they are a disruption to drilling, that has to remain our primary focus. Keep at the main mission, but keep what eyes you can on this. I want to know as much about these… aliens as we can.”

David nodded, and even said “Yes, sir,” which made Thomas smile inside. Civilians didn’t often say that. Not seriously, at least.

A few days later, Thomas was in his quarters taking a short nap when he got a call from David stating he had a report on the solar life forms and their relationship with the drilling. He got dressed and met David and Heidi at the same computer station they first saw the aliens on.

“What do you have,” Thomas said, all business.

“Okay, well,” David said, pointing to the screens. It showed almost the same scene as the last time. Blue sun background, green flames moving about. This time, though, there was some kind of long black thing in the middle. “This a picture from about an hour ago. That black line in the middle? That’s drilling arm five. It appears that the aliens were attempting to attack it. They were doing a good job of it, too, until we retracted it. The little damage they were able to cause it matches the damage done to the first drilling arm we lost.”

“Wait,” Thomas said, “Your saying that these things are responsible for the lost arm? They’re… attacking us? Or defending themselves, maybe?”

“We don’t really know, at this point,” Heidi said.

“Can we communicate with them?” Thomas said.

“We don’t know,” David said.

Thomas nodded, realizing that this was just as new to them as it was to him. “Okay, David,” he said, giving orders, “Finding a way to communicate with them is your top priority as of right now. We need to know what they’re doing, why, and if necessary, how to stop it.”

He then turned to Heidi. “Dr. Jones,” he said, “find away to re-insert arm five, but make sure it’s away from these guys. We want to avoid damage, if possible, but we also don’t want to slow down extraction. If it’s impossible to avoid these guys, let me know. But,” he said, cutting off a protest he saw forming on her lips, “find out just HOW impossible it is before coming to tell me.”

Both Heidi and David nodded, and then turned to their respective tasks. They spent the next few days pulling in and re-extending the drilling arms, trying to dodge the aliens. Then, a few days later, they had that communication break through, though it wasn’t because of David.

Thomas walked into the command center, ready for another day of alien watching and status reports on the drilling. With the aliens, production had slowed, but not yet enough to make him want to try and move to another location. Before he could even sit down, however, there was a flash of brilliant white light. When his vision returned, standing in the center of the command room was a small figure, much like the flame aliens. It was about seven feet in height, barley touching the ceiling. The top of it swerved left and right, as if it were a head searching for something. Thomas was struck still in awe. It was almost painful to look at, yet difficult to pull his eyes away.

Then, he heard a voice. “Greetings, strange creatures,” it said. It was hollow and echoy, like those old fifty’s sci-fi movies he’d watched when he was a kid. It took a few moments to realize that it was inside his head. Telepathy? It was more and more like those old sci-fis.

“We are not native to this star, but we live here,” the voice said. “You are also not native to this star?”

It took Thomas a moment to realize that they had asked a question. “No,” he replied. “we are not native to this star, but we are native to the third planet orbiting around this star.”

The creature almost seemed to nod. “And why are you here now?” it asked.

“We need a material found on this star,” Thomas said, “in order to save our world. We’re facing environmental disaster, but this material can save us.”

“And yet,” the voice said immediately, “you destroy our environment in the process of getting this material you crave.”

Thomas’ eyes flew open. So they were defending themselves. Damn it. This seriously compromised the mission. He realized he hadn’t spoken for a few moments.

“We apologize,” he said. “We were unaware that there was life on the sun. Our scientists believed that it was impossible.”

“What is this material you seek?” the voice asked again.

Just then, Heidi replied. Thomas wasn’t even aware that she had arrived in command. She gave a description of the specific type of plasma they were here extracting. The alien listened, and did that strange nod thing several more times.

“And you cannot get this material from the gas giants in this system?” the voice asked.

Heidi looked to Thomas, as she expected him to have the answer. He simply waved his hand towards the visitor, inviting her to continue. After all, Thomas didn’t have the slightest clue. He just went were he was ordered.

“Well,” she said at last, “no. I mean, it’s a plasma only found on the photosphere of the sun.”

“We know a way to make that type of plasma from the raw materials of the gas giants.” He said. “We have done it during our travels throughout the cosmos to help sustain us. We can show you.”

“But,” Thomas said, “It would take us years to get there and back to our planet. By the time we arrived, the damage would be worse, maybe more than the amount of material we’d have collected.”

There was a slight pause as the alien considered this information. “This device of yours, it brought you here from your world?”

“Yes,” Thomas said.

“It has engine’s then?” the creature said. “That propel you through the void?”

“Yes,” Thomas said again.

“May I see them?” the alien asked.

Thomas once again raised his eyebrows in surprise, then turned to Heidi. She shrugged. He turned back to the alien and said, “Yes. Please, follow me.”

He lead the strange, flame like creature through the station to the engine room, where the booster rockets could be worked on directly. The creature seemed to float across the ground, moving without any kind of visible method of propulsion. It moved right up to the engines and examined them closely.

“Interesting use of solid materials,” it said, seemingly to itself. The speech patterns seemed strange human. He watched as it did that strange nodding motion. After it had moved around the whole room, it came back to Heidi and Thomas.

“We can teach you how to modify these engines to travel as we travel,” it said. “We can show you how to fold space.”

Everyone in the engine room turned to look at each other and mutters began rippling behind the alien. Thomas waved them to silence.

“You would do this for us?” Thomas asked. “After we started destroying your environment?”

The alien again nodded. It was like that was the only emotional expression it had. “You’re world suffers, and so you came here to fix it. You hurt our world in the processes, but on accident. In order to save both our worlds, this is the most expedient solution. Perhaps, when your world is saved, we can become friends as a result of this.”

A smile crept across Thomas’s face. “We would like that.”

Thomas immediately ordered the stopping of all extraction. The crew of Hope Platform changed their focus to work with the strange alien and modify the engines so that the station could fold space. Heidi spent a long time explaining to Thomas exactly what that would mean, and he was excited on the prospect of almost instantaneous transportation from one part of the universe to another. It took nearly a month for the work to be completed, but when they were done, a small test was conducted, that had the ship exit the photosphere of the sun to orbit around the sun just outside the corona, without ever traveling through the corona. It was a success, and the whole crew cheered.

“On behalf of all the people of Earth,” Thomas said to the alien that had been a regular member of the crew for the past month, “I wish to extend a thanks to our new friends. Our view of the universe has changed because of this, as has our ability to explore it. Thank you.”

The creature nodded. “Our view has changed as well. We never thought that solid beings such as you were scientifically possible. We look forward to conversing with you about your people and sharing knowledge. Farewell, people of Earth.”

With that, the creature disappeared in a blinding flash of light. Thomas turned to Heidi, who was already working at her computer, running numbers based on the formula the aliens had given her to convert the raw gasses of Jupiter into the plasma they needed. He walked up behind her and put his hand on her back.

“This is going to work,” she said. “between this processes and the folding space, we can get more than enough plasma to fix the Earth, and do it in half the time!”

Thomas nodded. “We’re going to make it, and we’re going to come home with far more than anyone could have ever imagined.”

He looked at the slowly opening blast screen on the main view port. The majesty of the black of space extended before him, and he now knew that he would be one of the first to get out there and truly explore it.

“Lieutenant,” he said to the pilot. “Set course for Jupiter.”

“Aye, sir,” came the reply.

The End

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