Photo Finish - Short Story

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Photo Finish - Short Story

Post by RJDiogenes » Fri Aug 22, 2008 1:24 am

This is a short story that was in my pile of WIPs for a while; the idea was to write a story that emulated the content and feel of an Arthur C Clarke short story from the 50s or 60s. I decided to finish it up when he died last week as a small tribute to the Grandmaster. I hope you all enjoy it; if anybody is familiar with ACC's short fiction, please feel free to tell me how well or badly I succeeded. :)

© 2008 Rick Hutchins

On the best of days, the dome of the Beta Telescope at Hammil U, Farside, was very much the textbook definition of unkempt, as one might expect of a lab used primarily by three grad students in astronomy and their professor. But on one particular day in December (it will surprise no one to learn that it was the sixteenth), it bore all the signs of a hovel that had not been attended by any efforts at housekeeping for at least a lunar month; which, in fact, it hadn’t.

The sole occupant of the dome, Arthur Minehead, was as unconscious of the empty pizza boxes and old candy wrappers as he was of the rather spectacular view of the towering crater walls several miles distant outside the dome’s portholes. His attention was solely focused on the screen of his portable computer, which was currently connected to the telescope’s memory core.

So preoccupied was he that he did not realize that he had company until his visitor cleared his throat and tapped lightly on the bulkhead with his knuckles.

“Hey, Arthur,” said the visitor, rather apologetically. “Sorry to interrupt. Er... the door was open.”

Arthur looked up from his laptop, blinking rapidly, his attention returning from a distance of quite a few light years. “Charles,” he said. “No, that’s all right. Come in. I guess I haven’t seen you in a few weeks.”

“Yeah, I’ve been pretty busy.” Charles Colombo was, like Arthur, a graduate student in astronomy; but his stomping ground was the nearly identical dome of the Alpha Telescope, almost a kilometer to the other side of the observatory quad. “We’ve been making some... uh... good observations over at Alpha.”

“Same here,” said Arthur. His eyes flickered to his portable comp and he quickly dimmed the screen– which Charles did not fail to notice. “So what can I do for you?”

Charles shifted uncomfortably and scratched his head. “Doctor Gernsback mentioned that you guys have called a press conference for this afternoon.”

“That’s right. Sorry, but I can’t give anything away ahead of time. It’s very hush-hush.”

“No, that’s not why I’m here.” Charles trailed off into silence and succumbed to another bout of foot shuffling and head scratching.

“Well..?” prompted Arthur.

“The thing is,” said Charles slowly, “we’ve called a press conference also.”

Arthur was slightly taken aback. “Really? You’ve got a big announcement?”

“Yeah,” said Charles flatly. “It’s pretty major.”

“That is bad timing,” said Arthur. “Look, I can’t really tell you anything, but you probably want to reschedule. I can safely say– and no offense– that you’ll be completely overshadowed.”

“I don’t think so. Like I said, we’ve got something pretty major. Trust me on this: Whatever you’ve got, this is bigger.”

Arthur chuckled. “I seriously doubt it.”

The two men stared at each other for several moments.

“How about,” said Charles finally, “if we grab a bite to eat?”

The central arboretum was only ten minutes down the tunnel by electric cart. Arthur and Charles spent the trip making small talk– mostly about sports as the moon has no weather to discuss– and then parked at the food court. They picked up a bucket of crispy wings and two side orders of fries at Plato’s Man, grabbed a couple of cans of JJ from a vending machine, and then rented a small alcove at Somerset’s– Victorian style, with red bricks and a holographic fireplace.

Charles closed the privacy curtain as Arthur spread lunch out on the dark wood table between the luxurious armchairs.

“So,” said Arthur, touching an unobtrusive switch on the mantel, which caused the holographic fire to spring to life, “what have you got?”

Charles sipped his beverage and said, “You first.”

Arthur laughed good naturedly as he took a bite out of a crispy wing. “Nice try. But you came to me, so it’s on you.”

“All right. I’ll tell you. But Professor Campbell will go supernova on me if he finds out.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t say anything.”

Charles leaned forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “We’ve been photographing an extraterrestrial space probe within the solar system.”

Arthur’s jaw literally dropped, nearly into his fries.

“What?! I mean... what?!”
“It’s true. We first spotted it about a month ago, while we were collecting data on the new Green Spot on Neptune.”

“Do you mean to sit there and tell me that aliens have sent a space probe to study the Earth?!”

Charles sighed and shook his head. “Unfortunately, no. It’s an artifact. A relic. We postulate that it’s the alien equivalent of a Voyager or Pioneer, something that just passed on into interstellar space when its mission was over.”

“Well, go on!”

“As you can imagine, we know very little as yet. It’s crossing through the solar system at about 28 kilometers per second and its closest approach will bring it just inside the orbit of Mars. It’s about the size of a bus and pockmarked down to our best resolution. If there were ever any markings, they’re long gone, although we have hopes that an electron microscope will be able to read something.”

“Well, it must have been out there for... for...”
“Hundreds of thousands of years,” nodded Charles. “The most interesting thing is that Catherine thinks she can see the terminus of eleven tiny struts– evidence of a solar sail long since worn down by atomic hydrogen and dust. We’ll have to wait to confirm that, of course. What we can see are seven perfectly recognizable radio dishes. These people seem to have liked odd numbers.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Very probably Tau Sagittarii. If not, then from somewhere very far away indeed.”

“Have you... er... listened..?”

“As a matter of fact, Tau Sagittarii has been checked a couple of hundred times over the years. It was the closest possible source of the Wow Signal back in 1977. It’s always been completely silent.”

Arthur shook his head. “Then the civilization that launched it is probably extinct.”

“Possibly. Hundreds of thousands of years is a long time and we have no way of guessing the typical lifespan of a technological civilization. But they may have just moved on to some other form of communication. Or they may simply have no interest in communicating with us. Or it may just not be possible for us to detect signs of civilization at that distance.”

“Oh, I think it’s possible,” said Arthur quietly. “Will we be able to recover the probe?”

“Certainly! We’ve calculated its path to the hundredth decimal place for the next several millennia. But there’s no reason to think we can’t customize a robo-probe and have it out there within a year.”

“This is uncanny!”

“So you see what I mean then?”

“About what?”

“The press conference. Obviously, you’ll want to cancel yours. Otherwise, whatever your announcement is will be lost in the rocket wash of the greatest discovery in history.”

Arthur stared at him a moment and took a deep breath. “Actually, Charles, I think we’ll go ahead with it.”

“You’re not serious.”

“I am.” This time it was Arthur’s turn to lean forward and lower his voice to a dramatic whisper. “You see, we’ve also been observing an alien artifact.”


“We spotted it last month during the Deep Sky Halo Object Survey.”

“But... but...” stammered Charles. “That’s just... just....”

“Uncanny. I know.”

“But this is too much. We can’t both have found extraterrestrial probes inside the solar system at the same time!”

Arthur shook his head. “No. No, this isn’t a probe. And it’s nowhere near the solar system.”

“Then what in heaven’s name is it?”

“It’s... it’s architecture.” He spread his hands as if at a loss for words. “I guess you could call it a work of celestial engineering.” He swallowed hard and when he spoke again his voice quivered with awe. “It’s a Klemperer Rosette, Charles. A Klemperer Rosette of six main sequence G-Type stars.”

A wave of dizziness hit Charles and he had to grip the arm of his chair to keep from falling over– it was several moments before he was sure that he wasn’t going to faint, and several more before he could speak.

“We’ve always theorized about the possibility of... but to actually know that it... you’re very sure?”
“Oh, there’s no doubt. No doubt at all. Each star is of precisely the same size, within two percent of the sun. Their spectra are identical. They’re spaced equidistantly at thirty-eight AU. There’s no way such a thing could happen in nature.”

“What’s holding it together? A black hole?”

“Presumably. But if there is, it’s a perfect naked singularity. There’s no sign of an accretion disk. No radiation at all. And we’ve calculated that each one of those stars has stable orbits in its habitable zone. And you can bet there are planets there– you can bet on that!”

Charles sat back in his chair and put his hand over his trembling stomach; he was sorry now that he had eaten. “So we’ve discovered one civilization that seems to have expired in its youth and another that has gone on to rearrange the very stars in the sky.”

“What a day, huh?”

“I think,” said Charles, “that we need to hold that press conference together.”

“Agreed,” Arthur replied. He reached out and the two men shook hands, with sweaty palms. “We’re going to go down in history, you know.”

“Gernsback and Campbell will go down in history. We’re grad students. We’ll be footnotes.”

“True,” shrugged Arthur.

They gathered up the remains of the food and other trash and dumped it in the waste slot beside the fireplace. Exiting the alcove, they walked back to the electric cart and drove down the tunnel back to the observatory in silence, each preoccupied with his own thoughts, until Arthur finally spoke.

“Mine is the more impressive discovery, of course.”

“But mine can actually be retrieved and studied,” countered Charles without hesitation.

And so it went until the joint press conference late that afternoon, when they and their colleagues, in a most gracious and collegial manner, announced to the world that the question which had most vexed humanity for centuries had finally been answered– twice in one day.


PS: I know I played fast and loose with the definition of Klemperer Rosette-- I may change it to Niven Rosette in the final version. ;)

If anybody knows of anything better, please clue me in. :)
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