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- "The Sails of Tau Ceti" by Michael McCollum
(c) 1998, All Rights Reserved
Starhopper was humanity's first interstellar
probe. It was designed to search for intelligent life beyond the
solar system. Before it could be launched, however, intelligent life
found Earth. The discovery of an alien light sail inbound at the edge of
the solar system generated considerable excitement in scientific circles.
With the interstellar probe nearing completion, it gave scientists the
opportunity to launch an expedition to meet the aliens while they were still in
space. The second surprise came when Starhopper's crew boarded the alien
craft. They found beings who, despite their alien physiques, were
surprisingly compatible with humans. That two species so similar could
have evolved a mere twelve light years from one another seemed too coincidental
to be true.
One human being soon discovered that coincidence had nothing
to do with it ...
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The Sails of Tau Ceti! -- An Excerpt
The control room was crowded for the final
approach. Garth and Tory continued strapped into their couches,
while Kit and Eli floated behind them. The two observers had
anchored themselves to handy stanchions in an attempt to keep out of
"See anything?" Kit asked.
"Not yet," Tory answered over her
shoulder. Tory had the telescope slowly scanning the point in space
where the starship was located. They were closing with the alien
craft at a few hundred kilometers per hour, and from a direction
well removed from the ionization laserís cone of operation.
"There!" Eli shouted.
"Where?" Garth snapped.
"Lower right hand quadrant. Just above
the edge of the sail."
Tory looked to where he directed. Sure
enough, something glinted where there had been no star a few seconds
earlier. Coming in from the flank as they were, the sail showed a
limb like a planet. Despite their proximity, however, the shroud
lines remained invisible to all but the sensors.
"Canít. Weíre at maximum
"All right. Keep the scope trained on
The object on the screen began to take shape
slowly. The sliver was transformed over several minutes into a
bullet shape. A minute later, the bullet became two shapes ó a
large cylinder and a smaller sphere.
Garth gave the order to paint the starship.
The scanning radar was far less powerful than the single pulse they
had used earlier, but more discerning of surface detail. Everyone
held their breath and hoped the starshipís crew would not
interpret the new signal as an unfriendly act.
"How is the microwave link?" Garth
The linguist glanced down at a hand held
monitor and responded, "Going out strong, Captain! Earth will
be watching this same scene in another 630 hours."
"My God, how large a ship is it?"
Kit asked when the radar began to paint the alien vesselís image
on the screen. Dimensional information appeared unbidden to answer
the question. The central cylinder was slightly more than four
kilometers long, with a diameter of one kilometer. Its shape was
highly reminiscent of a human LaGrange colony ó hardly surprising
since both were designed to simulate planetary conditions in a space
environment. The shroud lines terminated in the spherical structure
at the aft end of the cylinder. Doppler measurements showed cylinder
and sphere to be rotating at different speeds. The sphereís
movement was synchronized with the twice-an-hour rotation of the
light sail, while the cylinder rotated once about its axis every/ 48
"How much centripetal force at the
"I make it 87% of Earth standard,"
"That proves theyíre from an
Earthlike world, at least in terms of gravity."
"Not necessarily, Captain," Kit
said. "Remember, Saturnís gravitational field isnít much
stronger than Earthís. They may be from a gas giant."
"Letís get a surface temperature
reading from the hull."
"Infrared radiation peaks at 20į
"Still sounds like Earth to me. Still,
Kit has a good point. Letís not jump to conclusions."
Just then, the screen switched from radar
display back to the view from the shipís telescope. A tiny
cylinder lay silhouetted against the black of space just above the
limb of the light sail. The resemblance to a LaGrange colony was
uncanny. Complex machinery could plainly be seen covering the
starshipís hull. Some of these would be heat rejection mechanisms,
Tory knew. Rejecting waste heat to the vacuum of space was a much
larger problem than most people realized. Other bits were
undoubtedly sensors, while still others might be weapons. Distance
and lack of familiarity with Tau Cetian technology made it
impossible to be certain of anything.
"Why are there no lights?" Kit
Until then Tory hadnít realized that the
alien cylinder was completely dark. It was dimly illuminated by
distant Sol and the glow emanating from the light sail.
"Maybe the ship is a derelict after
"Why should there be lights?"
Guttieriz asked. "Who is going to see them out here?"
"Whatever the reason," Garth
replied, "lets make sure that weíre getting pictures of
"Scanning," Tory reported. Through
her implant she was aware that a dozen different data streams were
wending their way back toward Earth. Each passing second gained
humanity several million bytes of additional data concerning the
Their concentration on the viewscreen was
suddenly broken by a muted tone. The noise was so ordinary that it
took a few seconds to register. Four sets of eyes were drawn as one
to the small symbol that had suddenly appeared in the lower corner
of the viewscreen. The icon was that of an old style telephone. It
signaled the arrival of a message on the short range, ship-to-ship
communications band. The only problem was that there was but one
other ship within six hundred light hours of them Ö
Garth looked sharply at Tory. "You arenít
playing a joke with your implant, are you?"
The look on her face convinced him of her
"What do we do?" she asked
He took a deep breath and reached for the
communications control on his instrument panel. "We answer
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Page was last edited on
11/11/10 04:29:02 PM